Most horse owners will be faced with needing to confine their horses for a period of time whilst they may be recovering from an injury or suffering a bout of laminitis. Horses who are unaccustomed to confinement can become stressed when their are suddenly restricted and it is important that owners are able to recognise the signs as well as know how to address them.
Common signs of stress in stabled horses include :
– decreased appetite
– High arousal
– Pacing, pawing the ground
– Excessive vocalisation
– Wood chewing and crib biting
– Loose feces
– Box walking
When confining horses, their natural behaviour and instincts still need to be considered.
A recent study of hospitalised horses in France showed those who had enrichment :
– reacted less to wound care and other treatments
– Had fewer complications
– Had less inflammation
– Had lower pain scores
Let’s be clear, environmental enrichment is more than putting a toy in the stable.
Environmental Enrichment should consist of a combination of these 4 principles.
1. Companionship : housing a horse in stable that allows for social contact (eg. Half height walls or rails). However, stabling with solid walls may be better when unfamiliar horses are next to each other. Experts also agree that visual stimuli should be provided by incorporating two horizons via windows or open top doors that allows the horse to interact with their environment. This has been shown to reduce stereotypic behaviour.
2. Promoting Rest and sleep : changes in housing and routine can disrupt the horse’s natural sleep patterns. research has shown that straw bedding reduced the frequency of box walking and horses spent longer laying down. However this may not be appropriate for laminitic ponies who may consume their bedding!
3. Stimulation via feeding and foraging : keeping to your horse’s normal routine when it comes to feeding is important to prevent digestive upsets such as colic. Fibre (hay) should be available throughout the day and horses should not be left with nothing to eat for long periods of time. Slow-feeder hay nets, hay cubes, hay racks can all allow the horse to trickle feed as naturally as possible. We recommend providing multiple options for feeding and foraging to stimulate decision-making.
4. Environmental stimulation : if permitted, hand walking and grazing can provide a welcome relief to the confines of the stable. Toys in the stables can be stimulating to some horses. However research has shown that toys which don’t involve food are only appealing to young horses (2-5yo), whereas adults find them much less appealing. Food balls or hay balls are readily available in most feed stores and may be an ideal way to provide your horse’s daily feed ration whilst also allowing for mental stimulation.
Providing environmental enrichment for the resting horse is a balancing act to meet the needs of the individual horse, adhere to the veterinary treatment plan as well as fitting in with the owners facilities and time.
Be creative in your approach to environmental stimulation. Every horse is different and you know your horse best. The end goal should always be to promote relaxation and healing whilst minimising stress.