4 min read
If horses could write to Santa….

If horses could write to Santa….

Many people love to splash out a bit on their horse at Christmas – it makes us
feel good! Each year manufacturers give us a bewildering choice of things to buy. Really, we need to look at things from a horse’s point of view if we want our gifts to make them healthy and happy, as well as us. Research in zoo animals has shown the benefits of meeting behavioural needs, and the use of ‘enrichment’ when there are shortfalls in the environment that cannot be overcome. You don’t have to be a zoo-keeper to realise most domesticated horses live in very different conditions to their feral ancestors.  

Consider that feral horses choose to live surrounded by fresh food and rarely have to ‘work’, or hunt, to find meals like dogs or early humans. Horses are highly motivated to forage for a constant supply of fibre to their gut, however, to avoid gastric ulceration. Rarely would they naturally eat only one species of grass year-round; there would be fluctuations in species ‘in season’, and quantity available. In fact, variety has been found to be more highly valued by horses than sweetness or quantity. Several studies have observed that horses will leave a preferred grass species to try a less accessible and less palatable species [1,2]. This is something we can attempt to recreate, even for stabled horses [3]. Mix in a small amount of hay from a different source now and again, even if your horse normally requires a high-energy ryegrass (don’t make big changes, of course, or it will upset the gut). A horse in very hard work but with limited appetite will possibly eat more if given choice and variety. Steaming also seems to increase palatability and, of course, protects airways from mould and bacteria in hay.

Along with the variety of forage, the natural gentle movement during grazing and choice of location can also be somewhat satisfied by providing an attached yard – even one that is only as big as the stable.  Now the horse has a choice over whether they stand inside, or spend time with a neighbour on the other side of the fence.  Do make sure the horses all like each-other when space is very limited! 

Having some physical social contact is incredibly important to horses, not just sight and sound. A stabled horse is less likely to lay down to sleep when they feel isolated from other horses [4], are frequently startled, or just find the bedding and environment unpleasant to lay in.  Problems also arise where there isn’t enough space, like getting cast or scrapes to hocks, knees and fetlocks. Provide the largest possible space in shelters or stables, and a soft flooring that allows them to lay where they choose and allows easy movement, like Comfortstall.

You are also a social companion, by the way! Nipping out to ‘do’ the horse in a whirlwind of chores and schooling may be essential during the working week; but during a Christmas and New Year break we can spend more quality time with the horse.  Ever had a friend who only shows up when they want something? What do you feel like when you see them – a sense of dread perhaps? You have an opportunity to be a better friend and provide some form of new, non-ridden, activity that interests the horse.  Even spending undemanding time and finding their itchy spots will be appreciated.  

A confident horse will enjoy new sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells. Replicate the natural world as much as possible and let them explore at their own pace. Find ‘enrichment’ ideas online - they need not be expensive. Rummaging through a shallow cardboard box full of empty plastic bottles encourages exploratory behaviour and you can help by including thin slices of carrot or apple. Or, just put on a halter and nice long lead-rope and let them have a sniff around the yard - wherever THEY choose to go. Make sure the main gate and feed room door are closed! Have you tried playing your horse some music, quietly, and watched how they react to different styles?  

Also, for those than can’t resist doing SOME training, let your horse train YOU for a change by responding to specific subtle gestures, like choosing which brush they’d like to be groomed with. Yellow and blue are the easiest colours for horses to distinguish, if you want to take things to the next level. Get the horse to touch, say, a blue square with their nose and do something they might want immediately afterwards – like taking off a rug if they are too warm. A yellow square could then mean ‘rug on’, or a triangle ‘scratch my tail’. In time they will start to ask you and, if you think your horse is not smart enough, think again as researchers have been using this sort of test with horses for a while [5].  Next to providing a horse with the essentials to maintain life, we can both gain so much more quality of life with a bit of time and imagination.


***Wishing you and yours all the very best for 2019!***


[1] Archer, M. (1973). The species preferences of grazing horses. Grass and Forage Science28(3), 123-128.

[2] Archer, M. (1978). Further studies on palatability of grasses to horses. Grass and forage science33(4), 239-243.

[3] Thorne, J. B., Goodwin, D., Kennedy, M. J., Davidson, H. P. B., & Harris, P. (2005). Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science94(1-2), 149-164.

[4] Yarnell, K., Hall, C., Royle, C., & Walker, S. L. (2015). Domesticated horses differ in their behavioural and physiological responses to isolated and group housing. Physiology & behavior143, 51-57.

[5] Mejdell, C. M., Buvik, T., Jørgensen, G. H., & Bøe, K. E. (2016). Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science184, 66-73.



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