Whether your horse lives in a stall or has recently been assigned to stall rest due to an injury, the confinement can be challenging for him. Horses are highly intelligent, social animals that enjoy being able to move about with other members of their species. Many stall-bound horses develop behavioral issues such as pacing, chewing, or aggression, which can lead to health issues such as ulcers and even colic.
Adding equine enrichment to your horse’s stall might help alleviate some of this boredom. Here are tips to enhance your horse’s environment and provide more stimulation.
Start with a stall designed with horse health in mind. Stall size for a horse should be at least 12-by-12 feet or 10-by-10 feet for a small horse or pony. The flooring should be dry and level with rubber mats on top of packed gravel, making it comfortable for your horse to stand on. Walls should be strong, smooth, free of projections, and at least 7 feet high. A foot of space between the top of the wall and the ceiling will allow for air movement and good ventilation, but the walls should extend to the ground so a horse cannot get his legs caught under them if he lies down to roll.
A window open to the outside will provide good airflow and natural light. Stalls that allow horses to safely interact with equine neighbors provide more enrichment and are more comforting to the occupants. It is important to ensure your horse can at least see others, though being able to touch noses (with resident horses that haven’t traveled off property) or do mutual grooming provides greater enrichment.
Choose a stall where your horse can see interesting things, including other horses, people coming and going, or activities around the farm. Things like kids playing, lawn mowing, bicycles, and snow shoveling in the winter all provide stimulus and give horses something to look at and think about. Be aware that this can be a fine line, because overstimulation can get some horses too excited. Watch your horse carefully and make changes accordingly.
If your stalled horse can’t have an equine companion next door, other animals, such as goats might be suitable alternatives. Cats and dogs often befriend horses, improving emotional well-being for each animal.
One of the simplest enrichments for the stable-bound horse is food. Small, frequent meals mimic a horse’s natural behavior of continuous grazing. Start by feeding three to four times a day. Consider leaving additional, lower-quality hay for your horse to browse during the day or investing in a slow feeder. Slow-feeder bins or bags force horses to take smaller bites, so they are eating and staying busy over a longer period.
You can also try feeding your horse in different parts of the stall so they do a bit of food seeking.
Consider occasionally giving your horse small branches of an edible plant such as willow, cottonwood, bamboo, or blackberry vines. Weave a branch or vine into stall bars or incorporate a holder (such as a PVC pipe fastened like an umbrella holder) into a stall corner for this purpose.
NOTE: Many species of plants are poisonous to horses, including black walnut, yew, red maple, black locust, rhododendron, laurel, oak, and most fruit trees. Be sure to carefully research which plants in your area are safe and which are toxic. The ASPCA has a list of plants that are toxic and non
–toxic to horses at aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/horse-plant-list. Consult your veterinarian if you’re unsure.
Healthier Treat Options
More food related ideas include feeding occasional treats such as watermelon, plums (without the pit), bananas (skin and all), grapes, celery, or cut-up pieces of raw (orange) pumpkin. You can feed these, along with other types of low-sugar treats available for purchase, in alternative locations throughout the stall to engage curiosity and food hunting behavior.
Toys might be helpful, especially for young horses. Study results show adult horses are less motivated by toys unless they are associated with food, such as hay balls or treat licks.
You might be able to make your own toys with a ball or another safe, plastic object such as an arena cone. A plastic milk jug (without the cap) tied to a rope and hung from the stall ceiling might make a toy for an active, young horse to bat around.
Give your horse a large nylon brush or a worn-out broom head safely bolted in the stall to scratch on as he chooses. You can also use a textured rubber mat screwed to a wall or post for horse can rub against.
Turnout and Exercise
Of course, the very best advice for reducing boredom in your horse’s routine is more exercise and turnout time in a safe, dry area. Good drainage in your turnout will keep these areas up and going during the winter and rainy seasons and allow year-round turnout time so horses can play and interact with others.
Even if you cannot ride or your horse cannot be ridden, you can still groom and maintain good hoof care for your horse during stall rest time. You can also try hand walking, longeing, or doing liberty work with your horse if your veterinarian allows it.
Adding enrichment for a stall-bound horse doesn’t have to be expensive and can be as simple as providing forage in a more natural way, adding a new type of feed or an occasional treat, or scheduling extra one-on-one time with your horse. Think outside the box, mix things up, and have fun together—and rest assured you are supporting your horse’s emotional well-being at the same time.