Helping horses feel at home

How happy are our horses? Is there more we can do to help them enjoy life?

Here at Redwings we know that caring for horses isn’t just about looking after their body, it’s about looking after their minds too. Horses evolved to roam across wide areas, spending most of their time foraging with companions. Even after thousands of years of domestication, their brains are still hardwired with an overwhelming urge to behave in this way. We can summarise these instincts using ‘The Three Fs’:

  • Food
  • Friends
  • Freedom

When we stable horses, fence their paddocks, control their diets, choose who, if any, companions they have, we need to be mindful that these have potential to impact on a horse’s instinctive sense of wellbeing. But there are many things we can do to compensate for the restrictions our horses experience as we care for them. We call this compensation ‘enrichment’.

Enrichment is much more than putting a stable toy in with a horse. We use enrichment at Redwings for many of our rescued residents, both in paddocks and when they need to spend time in a stable. We always monitor use of our ‘boredom busters’ and either offer them for short periods of time to keep their novelty value, or remove them if the horse becomes frustrated or loses interest, so we can try something else.

Download just some of the enrichment ideas we’ve enjoyed seeing our horses, ponies and donkeys benefit from here at the sanctuary:

Bigging up the Three Fs 

Food

Increasing feeding time shouldn’t mean increasing rations, with equine obesity being a significant welfare problem in the UK. But we can offer food in ways to make eating it more interesting and time consuming.

  • Use small holed haynets to make forage last longer, though not so small they simply become frustrated
  • Split rations up and offer at multiple feeding points for variety and to encourage your horse to exercise (this can be done in a stable or a paddock)
  • Offer a variety of natural plants for your horse to pick through, making sure they are safe to be eaten. Click here for guidance on trees and shrubs that horses can enjoy
  • Offer hard feed rations in a treat ball rather than a bucket

Always make sure that your horse can access their food without becoming bored or frustrated.

Friends

Horses are very social animals. They not only form strong bonds with companions but feel safer and more relaxed with friends.

  • Look at ways of maximising your horse’s time with company they enjoy, so they are free to groom, play, graze or doze together
  • For horses that don’t have field companions, being able to see other horses is important. Ideally neighbours should be able to interact across their boundary
  • Stable mirrors can work well for many horses, but introduce them carefully to help your horse get used to their new ‘friend’
  • Social housing is becoming increasingly popular as studies show that horses in these environments tend to be less stressed and develop fewer unwanted behaviours

Remember that, like people, not all horses get on. Monitor social dynamics to make sure all individuals are benefitting from being together, and always plan ahead and take time to introduce new horses with care.

Freedom

Freedom means space, both visually and physically. As prey animals, horses like to be able to monitor as much of their environment as possible and have escape routes available if needed.

  • Spending plenty of time in a paddock provides a sense of space and also allows horses to exercise naturally, supporting both psychological and physical health
  • Feral horses seek natural shelter to avoid wind, rain, hot sun and insects when they want to; try and offer your horse some choice too
  • Even when stabled, a sense of space makes a difference. One study found that increasing the field of vision significantly reduced stereotypical behaviour in horses known to weave
  • Try to provide an interesting paddock environment, use our free downloads for some simple ideas to get you started!

Equine behaviour is an exciting and growing area of research, and the more we learn about these fascinating animals, the more opportunity we have to care for them in ways that increase their ability to enjoy their lives in human hands.

Want to find out more? There are a number of articles on the Equine Behaviour and Training Association’s website, including an inspiring enrichment blog you can read here

 

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