Looking for ways to prevent boredom in your horse? Enrichment activities for your horse don’t need to cost a lot and can be easy to set up.

Many horse owners are aware of the basic components of animal welfare. You know to provide nutrition, water, shelter, safety, and medical help when needed. But a component of animal welfare that often gets missed with horses is the need to express normal and species-appropriate behaviours.

It can be difficult to provide a natural lifestyle for domesticated horses that meets their social and behavioural needs.

Horses have an intense drive for foraging which is often limited by modern management practices. In addition, individual housing in a stable environment can limit their social behaviours.

Up to 20% of horses develop repetitive, stereotypical behaviours to cope with the domestic environment including:

  • Crib-biting: Grasping a solid object, arching the neck and sucking in air
  • Wind sucking: Sucking in air, similar to crib-biting, but without grasping an object
  • Box walking: Pacing or circling in the stable
  • Weaving: Shifting weight from one side to the other or swinging the head from side to side

Fortunately, we can counteract deficits of the domestic environment by offering our horses enrichment (often referred to as environmental enrichment) that provides an outlet for their natural behaviours.

What is Equine Enrichment?

Enrichment is a husbandry practice that strives to enhance the environment of domesticated horses. This is done by providing environmental stimuli that support optimal psychological well-being for your horse. [1]

Enrichment can help your horse express normal and species-appropriate behaviour, preventing boredom and reducing stereotypical behaviours.

Stereotypic behaviour is observed in roughly 10-20% of domesticated horses. Ethologists (scientists who study animal behaviour) believe these behaviours are a horse’s attempt to cope with a non-species-appropriate lifestyle. [5]

The Problem with the Domesticated Environment

Horses in their natural environment will spend up to 75% of their day engaged in “foraging behaviour” which includes all forms of feeding behaviour.

This often gets confused with just the ingestion of forage, but it also includes other behaviours such as browsing, selection, grazing, sniffing, manipulating, biting, and ingestion. [2]

In contrast, domesticated horses can spend as little as 10% of their day foraging. [3] During that time spent foraging they are not engaging in a full range of foraging behaviours, just biting and ingestion.

That drastic 65% difference in time spent foraging affects most domesticated horses and results in a lot of idle time spent standing around with no additional behaviour.

Additionally, locomotion is an essential part of a horse’s natural behaviour, especially while grazing and foraging.

In nature, horses will rarely take more than two mouthfuls before moving to a new area. Domesticated horses tend to plant themselves or be fed in one location, resulting in next to no movement. [4]

Some of this comes down to diet composition and how your horse’s feed is offered. High-forage diets with hay provided in a slow feeder hay net will take much longer to consume and stimulate some foraging behaviours compared to high-starch diets.

Balancing the equine diet to meet both the nutritional and behavioural needs of the horse is critical to ensure overall physical and mental well-being.

You can submit your horse’s diet for a complementary evaluation by our equine nutritionists.

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Target Areas for Enrichment in Horses

Foraging Behaviour:

Using enrichment we can artificially engage horses’ foraging and grazing motivation for longer periods.

We can offer them objects to sniff and manipulate as well as get them to browse and use their seeking system.

Feeding Time:

Typically, feeding time take up only 10% of a horse’s daily activities but there are ways to make that same amount of forage last longer.

We can provide ways to prevent the horse from eating his forage too fast and stimulate his curiosity.

Movement:

It is unnatural for a horse to stand still in front of a pile of hay all day. This can become an issue with ad libitum hay because the horse is not foraging, grazing, or moving.

With enrichment, we can encourage natural movement so the horse does not spend long periods of time standing in front of the main feeder.

Boredom and Idling:

Boredom is a problem for many domesticated horses who spend much of their time standing idly.

Enrichment can provide horses stimulation outside of food and can even encourage play.

Stereotypies and Behaviour Problems:

Multiple studies have shown that enrichment can help reduce behavioural problems caused by idleness.

Enrichment can also be used to promote desirable behaviours, decrease separation anxiety, and reduce self-mutilation. [6]

Additional Benefits of Enrichment:

  • Reduction of stress [6] [8]
  • Provides horses with choices and control over their environment
  • Reduction of rapid ulceration by minimizing food deprivation [9]
  • Help with desensitization and positively introducing novel objects

Equine Enrichment Research

A French equine enrichment study was conducted on two groups of horses hospitalized at ENVA’s equine surgery clinic. One group received standard hospitalization while the second group benefitted from an enriched environment.

In standard housing, horses averaged 27 minutes per day performing stereotypic behaviour whereas the enrichment group averaged only 1 minute daily.

Additionally, the enriched group reacted less to wound care and other treatment-related manipulations, had fewer complications, less inflammation and lower pain scores. [7]

More research is required to determine the effect of enrichment on stereotypies in horses. However, preliminary studies show that offering an enriched environment can prevent stereotypic behaviours.

Types of Enrichment for Horses

Enrichment techniques are divided into five categories: [1]

  1. Physical Enrichment: Physical structures and arrangement of the environment including stall, terrain, or paddock
  2. Sensory Enrichment: Elements that engage any of the 5 senses (hearing, touch, smell, sight and taste)
  3. Cognitive Enrichment: Mental stimulation such as activities that promote curiosity
  4. Social Enrichment: Intraspecies (horses) and interspecies (non-horses) interactions
  5. Nourishment / Food Enrichment: Supporting foraging and providing stimulating ways to receive food

Before designing enrichment activities for your horse, here are some factors to consider.

Dietary Requirements:

When working with horses that have special dietary needs or metabolic concerns such as equine metabolic syndrome, we must make sure that we are not overfeeding or providing too much sugar with our enrichment activities.

Consulting with an equine nutritionist is always recommended to ensure your horse is receiving proper nutrients and a balanced diet. We can use our horses’ daily rations of food to provide our food-based enrichment activities without major dietary changes.

Neophobia (Food):

Neophobia is the tendency for an animal to fear anything new. This tends to manifest as the unwillingness to try new things or change up the routine.

Studies have shown that although horses can have a strong neophobic response to unfamiliar foods, the acceptance of novel food can be increased by introducing familiar odours. [10]

Introducing novel foods along with already accepted foods can help a horse accept new foods.

Neophobia (Objects):

Many horses are stressed by changes to their routine, including the introduction of environmental enrichments. This is especially true for horses that have already developed stereotypic behaviours.

It has been found that horses with stereotypic behaviours are less able to properly respond to novel stimuli. [11]

To ensure enrichment is not a stressful experience it is best to introduce simple enrichment activities at the start and watch for signs of stress. Allow the horse to engage with the activity without force or pressure, especially if introducing novel objects.

Multiple Horses:

When providing paddock or field enrichment in an area that is shared by multiple horses it is important to provide multiple enrichment activities to reduce resource guarding.

Time Management:

Zoology studies have found that a major concern for horse owners is the extra time involved in implementing enrichment activities. [12] We have chosen activities that are relatively simple and quick to implement so you can get started with your horse today.

9 DIY Enrichment Activities for Horses

Equine enrichment activities don’t need to be time-consuming or costly. The following are 9 Do-It-Yourself Enrichment Activities that can be implemented in under 20 minutes and with a low budget.

1) Scattering Grains

Equine Enrichment Activities - Scattering Grain

Time to implement: Under a minute (depending on location)
Cost to implement: Under $5.00
Materials: Food of choice
Level: Beginner

Process: This enrichment activity involves sprinkling grains, pellets, small pieces of vegetables, etc., on the ground around your horse or in the field.

This is an easy enrichment activity that can be added to a daily routine without taking too much time.

Why: As mentioned above, locomotion and foraging behaviours are essential parts of a horse’s natural behaviour.

This activity encourages movement and foraging, helping to prevent boredom for your horse. This activity can also increase the time spent feeding and is a great way to provide paddock enrichment.

2) Feed Pan Fillers

Equine Enrichment Activities - Feed Pan Filler

Time to implement: Seconds (if your horse is already eating grain or pelleted supplements daily)
Cost to implement: Under $5.00
Materials: Food of choice, feed pan and filler of choice
Level: Beginner-Intermediate (depending on filler choice)

Process: This enrichment activity involves creating a movable barrier between the horses and their grain ration.

Why: This activity provides sensory enrichment, involving the 5 senses by incorporating novel colours, sounds, smells and textures.

The filler slow down the rapid consumption of concentrates, increasing foraging behaviours. Complex fillers and items that require manipulation to get food out of the feed pan also provide cognitive enrichment.

Fillers: This activity is very customizable and different fillers can be used to create novel and stimulating experiences.

A free and easy option is to add a few pinecones into the fed pan or bucket. Other horse-safe items such as pool noodles, water bottles (can be filled with bells, water, dyed water, rocks), crumpled up paper, or toilet paper rolls can also be used.

3) Enrichment Walk

Equine Enrichment Activities - Walking

Time to implement: However long you would like
Cost to implement: FREE
Materials: A way to lead your horse
Level: Beginner

Process: This enrichment activity is as simple as it sounds. All that is required is a change of scenery and a nice day.

If you have a nervous horse, bring them outside of their field to graze on the grass on the other side of the fence. For a more confident team, take them on a hike through the woods allowing your horses to go at their own pace and letting them explore.

Why: This enrichment activity can provide social and sensory enrichment for your horse. Adventuring together is a fantastic way to bond as well as provide social enrichment.

Allowing your horse to forage in new areas is a great way to incorporate food enrichment as well.

4) Scavenging / Enrichment Box

Equine Enrichment Activities - Carboard Box

Time to implement: Under 5 minutes
Cost to implement: Under $10.00
Materials: Food, a box and fillers of choice
Level: Beginner to Advanced (depending on filler)

Process: This activity takes a bit more work to put together but is an excellent boredom buster.

First, find a cardboard box that does not have any staples or tape. Fill the bottom of the box with food as a reward and add in your filler of choice.

This box will be a lot deeper than a regular feed pan and sometimes just providing food with no filler in the box is enough enrichment for the horse to start.

Once the horse is more confident with the box, adding in fillers, “snuffle mats”, wrapping the food in towels, or lightly wrapping the box in wrapping paper are great ways to advance this activity while keeping things new and stimulating.

Why: This activity promotes cognitive stimulation and sensory enrichment by providing new objects that engage the 5 senses (hearing, touch, smell, sight and taste).

In its simplest form, the horse must manipulate an object to get its food. When introducing more complexity, you can provide your horse with a cognitively challenging puzzle.

Fillers: This is another activity that is very customizable and can be modified in novel ways. As mentioned above, fillers can include anything horse-safe that adds difficulty to the retrieval of food.

5) Grooming

Equine Enrichment Activities - Grooming

Time to implement: Under 20 minutes
Cost to implement: FREE (provided you have grooming tools)
Materials: Grooming tools
Level: Beginner

Process: Spoil your horse with some grooming time. This is not intended as a regular brushing session to get them clean. Instead, this grooming session should focus on the interaction between you and your horse and the idea of “mutual grooming“.

If possible, bring your horse into the field and interact with them without borders or tack. Use this time to find your horse’s favourite scratching, rubbing, and brushing spots.

Recent studies have found that pet-directed speech (a type of speech used on companion animals, like speech used with babies) can result in additional grooming movements towards a handler. [13]

Why: This is a great way to bond and engage in social enrichment and sensory (touch) enrichment. Mutual grooming has been shown to reduce a horse’s heart rate, promoting relaxation. [14]

6) Self-Grooming Items

Time to implement: > 20 minutes
Cost to implement: Under 20 minutes
Materials: Broom or brushes, long screws and a drill

Process: In this activity, we create an equine scratching/itching pad in their field. This is a great way to provide permanent paddock enrichment.

Using a fence post or a shelter-like structure, attach a large garage broom or brush. This activity is a fantastic way to repurpose old brushes.

Why: This activity provides a physical change to a horse’s environment while also providing sensory enrichment. This can also promote a healthy alternative for horses that excessively rub their hair out on corners and edges.

Note: As with any permanent fixture in the horses’ field, you should regularly monitor its condition to ensure it is safe for use.

7) Tarp

Equine Enrichment Activities - Tarp

Time to implement: Under 20 minutes
Cost to implement: Under $20.00
Materials: Tarp, Food and Fillers
Level: Intermediate-Advanced

Process: For this activity, place a large tarp on the ground. Turn this into a training activity and have your horse follow you over the tarp.

Afterward, scatter food and fillers on top of the tarp to engage your horse’s foraging behaviours.

Why: As a training exercise, this activity provides a social aspect on top of food and sensory enrichment.

If the horse is nervous around the tarp, we can use this activity to help desensitize them to novel objects as well. Doing this activity at liberty allows the horses to have choice and control over walking on the tarp.

8) Ice Block

Time to implement: Under 20 minutes
Cost to implement: Under $10.00
Materials: Water, food of choice, container and freezer
Level: Beginner.

Process: Fill a container with water and add hay, grass, apples, carrots, celery, etc. Freeze the container. Once your ice block is frozen, run warm water to get the ice out of the pan.

This ice block can be placed directly in the field on the ground, in a rubber feed pan or you can hang it.

Why: This is a unique sensory activity for your horse and a novel way to slow down food consumption. Different combinations of food can be used to continue to create new experiences.

Additionally, this activity promotes increased water consumption. It can also provide ongoing relief from boredom due to the time it takes for the ice to melt.

Fun fact: Apples will float, and carrots will sink! This makes a great combination to ensure that there is food on the top and the bottom of your ice block.

9) Egg Carton

Equine Enrichment Activities - Egg Carton

Time to implement: Under 5 minutes
Cost to implement: Under $5.00
Materials: Egg carton / Drink tray and food of choice
Level: Beginner.

Process: Take pellets, carrot pieces, grain, etc., and place them in an egg carton or cardboard drink tray. Present the egg carton or drink tray to your horse.

Why: This is one of the best activities to introduce enrichment to your horse. It provides sensory, food, and cognitive enrichment to the horse.

Getting the food out of the grooves can be a challenge and can be made even more challenging if the egg carton is closed. If your horse is struggling, place the open carton in a feed pan to keep it in one location. A drink tray provides the same experience but with bigger grooves.

Summary

The welfare of your horse includes their physical state as well as their mental state.

When an ethologist investigates animal welfare, we are not just looking at their physical condition, but their overal sense of well-being. Unenriched environments can affect the horses’ physiological and behavioural states, resulting in boredom and stereotypic behaviours.

By adding enrichment, we help to reduce stereotypic behaviour, and minimize stress while encouraging movement and natural foraging behaviours.

Spending under 20 minutes a day on these enrichment activities is a great way to begin introducing enrichment to your horses’ environment.

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References

  1. Shepherdson, D.J. Tracing the path of environmental enrichment in zoos. Second Nature – Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals 1st Edition. 1998.
  2. Thorne, J.B. et al. Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: Practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Anim Behav Sci. 2005.
  3. McGreevy, P. Equine Behavior – A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, page 16. Saunders Elsevier. 2004.
  4. McGreevy, P. Equine Behavior – A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, page 194. Saunders Elsevier. 2004.
  5. Nicol, C. Understanding equine stereotypies. Equine Vet J Suppl. 1999. View Summary
  6. Vinhas, L. and Oliva, V. Benefits of environmental enrichment in animal welfare: A literary review. Revista de Ciência Veterinária e Saúde Pública. 2016.
  7. Le Moal, C. Bien-être du cheval hospitalisé en clinique vétérinaire: évaluation etimpact de l’enrichissement de l’environnement. École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort (ENVA). 2015.
  8. Carlstead, K. and Shepherdson, D. Alleviating stress in zoo animals with environmental enrichment. In: The biology of animal stress: basic principles and implications for animal welfare. CAB eBooks. 2000.
  9. Murray, M.J. and Eichorn, E.S. Effects of intermittent feed deprivation, intermittent feed deprivation with ranitidine administration, and stall confinement with ad libitum access to hay on gastric ulceration in horses. Am J Vet Res. 1996. View Summary
  10. van den Berg, M. et al. Acceptance of novel food by horses: The influence of food cues and nutrient composition. Applied Anim Behav Sci. 2016.
  11. Mason, G. et al. Why and how we use environmental enrichment to tackle stereotypic behaviour?. Applied Anim Behav Sci. 2007.
  12. Hoy, J.M. et al. Thirty years later: enrichment practices for captive mammals. Zoo Biol. 2010.
  13. Lansade, L. et al. Horses are sensitive to baby talk: pet-directed speech facilitates communication with humans in a pointing task and during grooming. Anim Cogn. 2021. View Summary
  14. Feh, C. and de Mazieres, J. Grooming at a preferred site reduces heart rate in horses. Anim Behav. 1993.