When the weather’s frightful and our horses end up snowbound in their stalls, who gets antsier, us or them? I know I get pretty cranky when I can’t ride and I’m feeling sorry for my horses locked up inside. Horses are designed by nature to always be moving and foraging. Research shows that horses left to their own devices will eat 18 to 22 hours per day. Horses stuck in a stall with just twice-a day-feedings and little other stimulation can quickly become very bored—something that might be happening to many of our horses in with the recent wintry weather.
Boredom isn’t only a mental thing for them. It can cause real health issues and subsequent vet bills with such things as weight gain, bickering or fighting between horses resulting in injuries, ulcers, stall vices (such as chewing or weaving) and even colic.
Matt and our young horse, Hank, learn about playing hoof ball in lieu of riding.
Luckily there are a few things we can do to help alleviate boredom. I’m going to cover two options. This week I’ll talk about horse toys and next week I’ll discuss a new system of feeding horses, usually referred to as slow feeders.
A variety of horse toys are available these days including balls, licking toys (ones with sugar or salt in them) or ones with a food treat inside that encourage the horse to pursue the toy. Spend a little time at your favorite farm supply store or with a catalogue looking for ideas, being sure to check out the pet department. I have a heavy-duty medium sized ball on a rope which was meant for a large dog but my young horses will often play with it (once in a while the horse and dog will actually even play together with it!)
You may be able to make your own toys such as with a safe plastic object, such as an orange arena cone, or even a heavy branch from a non-toxic tree (check with your veterinarian for their advice on local tree species which aren’t toxic.) I’ve seen empty plastic milk jugs (sans caps) make good toys, at least until they're destroyed. You could also tie a milk jug onto a rope hung in a stall for an active, young horse to knock around. There may also be human toys that might work for horses, such as a large bouncing ball.
This week we purchased a horse toy, a large arena ball. Several brands and varieties are promoted by trainers and clinicians on the Internet. The idea is to teach your horse to kick the ball. Eventually a team of riders can play a horsey version of soccer using the ball. Now, when the footing in our big arena is too soggy for riding or if the weather’s too cold, we can still “play” with a horse in the round pen using our arena ball.
One other thought on reducing boredom for us; perhaps now is the time to work out a riding and ground exercising schedule that you can implement once all that snow melts and you are ready to roll. Maybe a list of trails to ride, show performance goals or conditioning exercises will help you both make it through the winter doldrums.