Image via iStock.com/Elenathewise
By Cheryl Lock
In a perfect world, your horse would spend his days roaming the open fields, grazing at his leisure and snoozing as he sees fit. In the real world, though, many horses tend to spend most of their day in their stalls with only the horse supplies their owners provide them to entertain themselves.
Why Extended Stall Time Is Detrimental
Unfortunately, being pent up for long periods of time can cause real problems for horses, both physically and emotionally. “Horses are intended to be grazing on the plains between 20 and 22 hours out of the day, so they’re natural lawnmowers that are meant to be using their mouths all the time,” explains Dr. Stephenie Hoke, DVM, MS of Dark Horse Veterinary Service.
So, when we put horses in a stall for hours and feed them two meals a day, a lot of behavioral and medical issues can arise, the biggest of which tend to be stomach ulcers. “The interesting part of horse digestion is that they are always producing stomach acid, so when their bellies get empty, they digest their stomach,” says Dr. Hoke. “So the incidence of stomach ulcers is at least 50 percent, if not higher, in stall-raised horses.”
Something else to keep in mind is that the more dramatic the transition to stall confinement, the more likely it is for a horse to become bored. “What that means is that if a horse goes from a high-intensity, highly engaged training program to immediate stall rest, they are more likely to be bored with stall confinement when compared to a horse that is used to being in a stall all day with the exception of a bit of turn-out time,” explains Dr. Jen Kasten, DVM. “Providing enrichment activities and interaction can help minimize the potential development of stereotypies due to boredom … including pawing, weaving, wind-sucking, cribbing and stall walking.”
According to Dr. Hoke, it’s actually relatively common for horses to get bored in general, and spending hours in a stall doesn’t help that tendency. Toys for horses can help alleviate the problem, but, as social animals that thrive on interaction, horses left to their own devices can get restless and agitated. But there are a few steps that horse owners can (and should) take to keep their stall-raised horses as happy as possible.
Tip 1: Start With Slow Feeders
Since horses are meant to graze all day, if you can provide them with the right amount of roughage and volume of hay to keep them happy without overfeeding them, you’ll be hitting the right balance.
Slow feeders—like the Derby Originals Supreme four-sided slow feed hay bag—are well worth the cost, says Dr. Hoke. “Putting hay in a device … that slows down the eating process to spread it out over five or six hours changes their comfort level and keeps their stomach, minds and lips busy.”
Tip 2: Get Them Out of the Stall for as Long as Possible During the Day
No matter how many horse toys you provide, a healthy routine for your stall horse includes as much time as possible actually out of the stall, says Dr. Hoke. “Take him out, groom him, spend time with him,” she says. “The horse doesn’t care if he’s an Olympic athlete or a pet, but having daily enrichment, not just playing in their stall, is important.”
Tip 3: Simulate a Herd Environment
Other forms of companionship can help curb stall boredom, as well. “This can be provided by having other horses within eyesight, using mirrors in the barn to simulate the presence of other horses, stabling another barnyard animal such as a goat with a horse, and providing lots of human interaction,” Dr. Kasten adds.
Besides the use of mirrors to mimic having a buddy next door (which should be plastic to avoid breaking), “other people leave the radio on in the barn,” says Dr. Hoke. “I'm not totally convinced that horses want to listen to music, but some of my clients do leave country or classical on in their stall, and I wonder if that might be similar to the audio input a horse would get when they’re with the herd.”
Tip 4: Make Stall Time as Enriching as Possible
Besides a mirror and music, toys for horses can be useful as well. “Toys that require horses to work or solve a puzzle for a treat are great because they are mentally engaging for the horse,” said Dr. Kasten. Horse ball toys like Horsemen's Pride jolly ball horse toy that they can pick up and throw around can provide fun enrichment time.
You can also offer a salt block for horses to hang in their stall, like the Horseman’s Pride’s salt on a rope horse treat. If your horse doesn’t care for salt block horse treats, you can try the Horsemen’s Pride stall snack apple-flavored horse treat.
Tip 5: Try DIY Horse Toys and Rotate the Selection
Some horses enjoy playing with simple, homemade toys, too, says Dr. Kasten, like a milk jug filled with a few rocks that’s hung from a sturdy rope in the corner of the stall. “As with any object placed in a horse’s stall, owners should always monitor the horse for safety,” Dr. Kasten adds. “If an owner has specific questions about whether a product is appropriate for his or her horse, I recommend they consult with their veterinarian.”
Whatever you decide to try, be sure to monitor how your horse reacts to the toy, as well. “Find what fits best for your horse, because what’s great for one horse may be a total train wreck for another,” says Dr. Hoke. She also suggests rotating different horse toys in and out of the stall. “Put one or two in for a week, and then swap it out,” she says. “Horses desensitize and get used to things easily, so they will develop boredom quickly.”