Come springtime, we humans in the colder climes get antsy, gazing longingly outside while we wait for weather that allows us to leave the house wearing less than three thermal layers. It’s cabin fever. We’ve done all we can think of indoors, and we want out. For stall-kept horses, their cabin fever doesn’t strike only once a year, rather every day.
You don’t need to be told that cooping up a horse in a stall can change its personality. You’ve no doubt seen it happen in your barn with sour and aggressive behavior coming from the most friendly of mounts that haven’t had their regular turnout time.
“Having a horse inside is a risk factor for developing stereotypic behaviors [aka vices], like weaving or cribbing,” says Camie Heleski, Ph.D., instructor and coordinator of animal behavior and welfare at Michigan State University. These bad habits are learned behaviors (they are not born with them, but pick them up as a result of environmental factors), so even one cranky, weaving horse can make the barn an unhappy place.
If you have horses kept inside—whether because of injury, lack of turnout or owner’s wishes—put these 10 tips to use to save everyone’s sanity (Photos of many of the products and links to the websites can be found in the photo gallery on the right.):
1. Let Them Eat … Hay
“Switch them to a higher-forage-based diet so they spend more of their time eating,” suggests Heleski. Grassy forages, especially, take a longer time to eat. Not only will a longer forage feast satisfy horses’ digestive systems, it will occupy their minds. Work with a nutritionist to determine how to meet more of the horse’s nutritional needs through hay rather than concentrates.
In addition to feeding more hay, feed it in more creative ways. Heleski suggests feeding hay in a hay net because it takes horses longer to eat from a hay net than it does to eat hay neatly piled on the ground. An alternative to a flimsy hay net that could invite horses to get a hoof caught is a hay cube, like the EZ Hay Feeder—a two-flake-sized plastic box with muzzle-size holes. If someone isn’t available to hay stall-kept horses throughout the day, invest in timed hay feeders. (See a video of the EZ Feeder in action.)
2. Let Them Play Ball
Stall toys can bring hours of entertainment to some horses. You can buy Horseplay Balls or Jolly Balls (which you can find in most catalogs), or you can make your own.
“We used to take milk jugs and tie them in the stall and let the young horses bang them around,” says Heleski. She points out it wasn’t the most attractive stall toy, but it was inexpensive, and it kept the horses occupied.
3. Let Them Play With Their Food