How Horse Care Contributes to their Mental Health
I recently finished the book Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman. The book’s focus is on animal anxiety and bad behaviors. It also tracks human’s use of animals throughout time — for entertainment, advancement of medicine, and even for determining the safety of space travel. Though the book does not spend much time on the idiosyncratic behaviors of horses, they are mentioned in brief stories about horses that chew down the wood of their stalls and suck wind. The book got me thinking about how the care we give our animals contributes to (or detracts from) their wellness.
You might be thinking, welcome to the party, Theresa; this is a simple concept! But I want to discuss going beyond the basics of providing food, water, and shelter. How do we keep them in that shelter? How do we feed them? How do we allow them to move about during their day?
It wasn’t long ago that I was a new horse owner. I fed my horse a high-energy diet but only had him out of his stall for the one to two hours I worked with him each day, grooming, lunging, and riding. My horse (aptly named Gangster) and I went through quite the journey of outbursts of bad behavior (on his part, rarely on mine). He would spook at the smallest stimuli and while in the middle of a lope, take off bucking down the rail. He was jiggy to ride and felt like he was only one stray plastic bag away from exploding.
There are many factors that contributed to his behavior; his lack of exercise, my lack of experience, and his ability to exploit my weaknesses are just a few. But I now see that there were other contributing factors. Some of the ways in which I managed his days contributed to his poor behaviors. After a particularly big blow-up, a kind fellow-boarder took me under her wing and essentially gave me an electrified turnout pen and made sure that Gangster was turned out every weekday when the weather was decent. Over time, I also cut out the high-energy portions of his diet and instead made sure he could free-choice feed throughout the day on lower energy hay. I’m fortunate that he is not an easy keeper. (Who would ever think that would be an expression of gratitude?)
The barn where I board my horse also changed their large pasture turnout arrangement, separating geldings from mares, so I then felt more comfortable turning my horse out with other geldings for short periods of time. Animal behaviorists admonish the anthropomorphizing of our animals, but I do believe my gelding displays horse joy at being turned out in the large pasture. He is able to gallop to his heart’s content, socialize with other horses, and graze. Grazing itself has many health benefits; it can provide nutrients that dry forage doesn’t and encourage exercise since grazing horses tend to cover more ground when turned out in large pastures. Horses that move more have also been shown to have better gut health.
Of course, my horse has also matured in age since the first rocky year of our relationship. However, I think changing the way I manage his care — giving him the time and space to be a horse, to self-exercise, to eat at will and on his own schedule — all contributed to a much happier animal. And that happier animal is now more willing to work, less reactive to things he deems scary, and has grown to trust my requests of him.
If you are experiencing behavioral issues with your horse, rule out any physical ailments. Ulcers, back pain, and dental issues can easily be missed when the symptoms present as bad behavior. Take advantage of working with a trainer to correct behaviors while your horse is under saddle, and ensure your horse understands what you are asking of him. In addition, I would encourage you to evaluate what changes you might be able to make to your horse’s daily life that can keep boredom at bay and foster good mental health.