Home alone: how to best keep your horse happy while stabled *H&H Plus*

  • Can enriching a horse’s stable environment help him cope with indoor life? Andrea Oakes

    We know that a lifestyle spent largely indoors, and alone, is a long way from what’s natural and healthy for horses. If a stabled horse looks happy and seems well, however, can we assume that he is satisfied with his surroundings?

    According to equine behaviour expert Dr Orla Doherty MRCVS, a horse’s outward appearance may not be as revealing as we imagine.

    “He may seem absolutely fine – looking over the stable door, apparently interested, with a shiny coat,” she says. “But we should ask ourselves, ‘What must it be like for him?’ Horses have a very high motivational drive to carry out certain behaviours, so denying them the opportunity to do so will have a big impact.”

    Horses have evolved to do three things in particular: to eat, move and socialise.

    “A horse would naturally spend at least 60% of his day grazing, rising to 90% on sparse pasture,” Orla says. “It is well established in scientific research that a horse would not voluntarily ‘fast’ for more than three to four hours. While we can satisfy his nutritional requirements in concentrated feed, we cannot bypass his instinct to be chewing and swallowing – yet many stabled horses finish their forage by late evening and are not fed again until the next morning.

    “Naturally, a horse would be in almost continual locomotion, grazing and stepping forwards, adds Orla. “He would move in a group and engage in interactions such as mutual grooming, but by stabling a horse we prevent these social behaviours. Ideally, a window or a low wall will allow nose-to-nose interaction; simply seeing a neighbouring horse from 12ft away is not thought to be of much value.”

    Toy story

    Stable mirrors and toys can never be a substitute for natural means of behaviour fulfilment, says Orla, but they have their place – if used wisely.

    “A horse displaying behaviour towards another will trigger an appropriate response, to get both safely through the interaction,” she says. “A mirror reflects the behaviour back. While this is not of the same value as another horse interacting, it does provide visible movement and makes that environment more interesting.

    “Toys such as feed-dispensing balls have some value; pushing them around encourages locomotion, and the slow release of food brings a horse closer to his natural feeding habits,” she adds. “But a device that dispenses a highly palatable treat, such as pellets, or withholds the reward component, can give rise to frustration and arousal which may be misdirected elsewhere.

    “A slow-release forage feeder is best. If possible, provide late-night forage, double-netted or in a small-holed haynet, to keep the horse busy for some hours, so he is not fasting until breakfast.”

    Company is always desirable, ideally of the equine variety.

    “The further away from equine we move, the less satisfactory the interaction,” explains Orla, explaining that even a donkey has a slightly different behavioural repertoire. “But see what works.
    If we remove opportunities for a horse to be interactive, or active, we should do our utmost to enrich his environment.”

    Introvert or extrovert?

    Horses unable to indulge their natural instincts react in one of two ways.

    “Some deal with frustration in an active or extrovert fashion, such as trying to find things to chew or lick,” says Orla, explaining that response is largely determined by genetic make-up. “These horses are more likely to develop stereotypic behaviours, such as crib- biting or wind-sucking.

    “Others have a more introverted method of coping. A recognised psychological condition called ‘learned helplessness’ can result, where the horse stops trying to alleviate stress and shuts down. He still experiences anxiety, though, even though we may not notice. This horse is more prone to gastric ulceration.

    “Health risks don’t stop there. Short-term frustration leads to a surge of adrenaline, while continually elevated stress levels prompt the release of the natural hormone cortisol.

    “While cortisol is helpful for the ‘fight or flight’ response, without the corresponding ‘escape’ from danger it can dampen or suppress a horse’s immune system. He will then be more likely to pick up infection and may lose condition as his body continues to break down energy reserves in preparation for flight.”

    Ref: 4 February 2021

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