In order to keep the health and well-being of our horses as optimal as possible, their living situation should resemble their natural state as much as possible. This means, among other things, being in a herd, moving quite a few kilometres a day and foraging almost all day long. This is not always possible in the living environment of our domestic horses. If a horse’s life deviates too much from its natural situation, this could lead to a variety of health concerns as well as stereotypical behaviour. There are a number of adjustments that you can make to make your horse’s life as pleasant as possible. This is also called enrichment.
With enrichment, you create an environment for your horse where it can display its natural behaviour as much as possible, thus reducing the chance of stereotypical behaviour. It improves the quality of life and increases the horse’s well-being. You can provide enrichment for any animal species, but it is important to know the animal’s natural behaviour. There are many ways to improve your horse’s quality of life:
In nature, horses forage for about 16 hours a day, during which they cover great distances. So they are really actively engaged in finding food. The aim of food enrichment is to stimulate this natural foraging behaviour (searching for and eating food) as much as possible. You can do this by varying how often you feed (the frequency) but also the way in which you offer the food. In any case, it is always a good idea to offer the food in several, small portions spread over the day. The horse’s gastrointestinal system is geared to this. If you feed the horse in a pasture or paddock, you can also divide the hay over several different places, stimulating movement between these locations.
In addition, you could offer roughage in a slow feeder (read more here), this ensures that the horse spends more time eating. There are feed balls on the market for concentrates, a kind of slow feeder for pellets. The horse has to roll the feeding ball along the ground to get the pellets out, this also helps to extend eating time. With slow feeders and feed balls, make sure that they do not have an adverse effect, as some horses can become frustrated. If you notice that your horse does not react positively to them, it is wise to look for something else that your horse does respond well to.
You can also offer your horse willow branches. Horses often like this and chew a lot on these branches. However, you should not give large amounts to your horse, as this could cause obstructions, for example.
A horse is a herd animal by nature. But our horses are often kept individually, alone in a stable. The moment a social animal is stabled alone, this causes a lot of stress as they are unable to express their social behaviour. It is therefore very important for horses to have contact with peers.
There are several ways in which you can achieve this. There are group stables, so a stable where several horses are together in a stable. You see this regularly at rearing stables. Horses are also sometimes kept together 24/7 in a pasture or paddock, with access to shelter. But probably the most common way of keeping horses is still individual stabling. Even though the horses are alone in a stable, you can ensure social contact. Preferably physical contact, so they can muzzle and groom each other, for example. This is possible in stables that have lower partitions or doors. If this is not possible, make sure that the horses can at least see and hear each other. This can be done, for example, by placing bars between the stables instead of a blind wall. There are pros and cons to each type of stabling. So take a good look at what suits you and your horse and what is possible in your situation.
Enriching materials allow you to stimulate the animal to display certain behaviour and to set them in motion. They can also be challenging, requiring the animals to really use their brains. There are different ‘toys’ for horses. For example, there are balls that you can hang in the stable, which the horses can play with and chew on. There are also larger horse footballs (or large fitness balls) that the horse can have fun with in a box or paddock. You can also challenge your horse with other materials. For example, put a plastic sheet or umbrella in the stable and see what your horse does with it. This also tells you a lot about your horse’s character. Read more about this here.
Enrichment doesn’t just have to be limited to the horse’s ‘free time’. You can also offer your horse challenges and variety within your training. For example, go for a hack out, or spend some more time on fun groundwork exercises. Obstacle training can also make for a nice change.