Holiday gifts ideas for horse lovers are flooding my electronic media and filling the pages of my favorite horse magazines. They advertise mugs with clever phrases like, “A woman’s place is on her horse,” and t-shirts for the horse owner’s lonely—yet resigned—partner. But if you’re looking for a gift that your horse will appreciate, consider an enrichment toy or activity.
What is Enrichment?
Enrichment items and activities are the standard of care for zoo animals and have more recently been developed for horses. Even when a horse is provided with safe housing and ample food, stabling restricts his natural behavior. In some cases, a horse’s physical and emotional welfare can be adversely impacted because opportunities to freely graze, exercise, and interact with other horses are limited. About one-quarter of all domestic horses develop problems and stereotypies related to aspects of equine management,¹ including depression², anxiety, aggression, cribbing and weaving, self-injury, gastric ulcers, colic, and others. Enrichment can reduce or prevent these problems by increasing behavioral diversity and the expression of normal behaviors, promoting interaction with the environment, and improving the animal’s ability to cope with challenges.4
Enrichment objects and activities are categorized by what needs they meet, and include nutritional, sensory, environmental, interactive, behavioral, and social. Some enrichment items that would make a perfect holiday gift for your horse are listed below. Not only will your horse enjoy the gift, it will could also help improve her physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
Enrichment Gift Ideas for Your Horse
Every healthy horse loves to eat, so a food-based enrichment gift might be an appealing choice. The amount of time spend foraging is one of the most striking differences in the activity of free-ranging and individually stabled horses. Free-ranging horses spend about 14 hours and travel up to 50 miles a day grazing;³ by comparison, stabled horses spend only a few hours a day eating and are often fed once or twice a day. A food-based enrichment gift can offer your horse a more varied diet while increasing the time it spends feeding.
A simple and festive treat toy is the “carrot garland,” which can also second as a holiday barn decoration. The garland is hand-made by braiding three sturdy lead ropes, connected at one end by the clips and tied at the other end with twine or a thin rope. Entire carrots and other treats are secured in the woven strands, and the garland is hung where the horse can browse from it.
Another food-based enrichment gift to consider is a treat dispenser. These will engage your horse’s mind and increase her activity as she manipulates the object to get the treat. A slow-feed hay delivery system will benefit your horse every day by reducing the rate of food intake and increasing time spent grazing. Setting up multiple slow feeders in a pasture or paddock will also keep your horse active as she moves from one feeder to the next. Many different styles of slow hay feeders are available, and there are a few safety features to consider. Check your horse’s mouth for damage to the incisors that can sometimes be caused by metal grates, or for abrasion to the gums caused by rubbing them against netting. Feeders that are close to the ground simulate natural grazing, but make sure your horse’s hoof or shoe can’t become caught in it.
Not all enrichment items are food-based. Horses naturally scratch and roll, so a scratching post to rub on is a holiday gift that your horse will appreciate. Brush scratchers can be made from old natural fiber push brooms screwed securely to the sides of a post. Position the broom heads at the height of your horse’s most itchy areas, often the rump and head.
Rolling is another natural activity that promotes coat care and comfort, and a layer of dirt protects against insect bites. Rolling also increases your horse’s flexibility and strength, by stretching and engaging muscles in the back, neck, and barrel. If you have the space, time, and ambition, consider creating a designated rolling area. In one study5 horses readily rolled in a 15-by-15-foot area, and preferred soil over sand or straw. Horses also seem to roll more in the morning, when sweaty, and after being bathed or groomed, so these might be the best times to offer your horse access to the area.
This list of enrichment gifts will close with an interactive activity that can benefit both you and your horse—such as the starter kit offered by The Clicker Center, which includes the a booklet Getting Started: Clicker Training for Horses by Alexandra Kurland. Positive reinforcement training is mentally stimulating and can expand your relationship by doing something fun with your horse that goes beyond riding and formal training.
When deciding on a holiday gift, consider what motivates your horse. Some are curious and will readily explore and play with new objects and toys. Others are more social and take pleasure from interactive activities. Whatever enrichment gift you choose, make sure that it will hold up to rough horse-play. Some toys should only be used with supervision, and all should be inspected routinely to insure your horse’s safety. Happy holidays!
¹ McDonnell, S. (2003). The Equid Ethogram: A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior. Eclipse Press.
² Fureix, C, Jego, P., Henry, S., Lansade, L., and Hausberger, M. (2012) Towards an ethological animal model of depression? A study on horses. Plos ONE 7(6): e39280. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039280
³ McGreevy, P. (2012) Equine Behavior. A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. Sauners-Elsevier.
4Young, R.J. (2003) Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals. Wiley-Blackwell.
5Matsui, K. Khalil, A.M., and Takeda, K. (2009). Do Horses Prefer Certain Substrates for Rolling in Grazing Pasture? Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 29(7), 590-594.