Winter Enrichments and Activities for Horses

Winter can be a challenging time for riders as well as their horses. Shorter days with inclement weather can make finding time to ride a challenge. Horses confined in paddocks or drylots during winter still need something to do. Increasing turnout time, allowing social interactions between horses, and providing sufficient forage opportunities are enrichment opportunities that are critical to our horses’ welfare. 

Winter Confinement

Keeping horses off winter rain-soaked soils or frozen pasture plants is key to maintaining the integrity of your pasture next summer. Soggy soils or dormant plants grazed below 3 or 4 inches simply cannot survive continuous wintertime grazing and trampling. Pounding hooves compact wet soils, which suffocates plant roots and creates more mud. Overgrazing causes root resorption so grass plants no longer have long, healthy roots reaching deep into the soil utilizing moisture and nutrients.

The alternative to destroying pasture is housing your horse in a mud-free confinement area. However, horses in confinement still need to have their needs met: They need to move about freely, have social contact, and be able to access food throughout the day. Even so, many horses in confinement develop physical or behavioral issues such as pacing, chewing, aggression, nervousness, or gastric ulcers.

What Is Equine Enrichment?

Equine enrichment is looking at ways to provide more stimulation in a horse’s environment to benefit their psychological and physical well-being. We all know our horses are smart—scientific research confirms this—so when confining our horses, we also need to keep their personalities in mind.

Here are a few ideas for ways to incorporate enrichment opportunities into confinement areas:

  • Confinement area shape and design. You might be able to design your confinement area to encourage interest. Maybe a long, narrow paddock with feeding or water stations at either end? You might want to research creating a track paddock for turnout. A track paddock is a large, long confinement area shaped like a track that encircles a pasture or other area. The goal is to encourage horses to move more freely and interact with others. Or perhaps your confinement area can double as a round pen for extra exercise.
  • Location. Locate your confinement area so your horse will have interaction and stimulus from the world around him. Set it up so your horse is part of your everyday life—seeing things like kids playing, you coming and going, summertime lawn mowers and bicycles, snow shoveling in the winter, etc., provides stimulus and something for horses to look at and think about.
Winter Enrichments and Activities for Horses
  • Companionship. Be sure your horse has equine neighbors so he can see and possibly interact through nose touching or mutual grooming.
  • Rolling area. Rolling is a natural activity that improves coat and skin condition as well as comfort. It is also thought to increase a horse’s flexibility by stretching and engaging muscles in the back, neck, and barrel. If you have room, create a sand pile in your horse’s paddock for this purpose. Alternately, use a sand arena or round pen for regular turnout so they can roll there.
  • Feed. More frequent, smaller meals are healthier for horses and mimic their natural lifestyle. Try feeding in different locations or stations so they do a bit of food-seeking. Offer different food types in different areas, such as hay cubes or low-quality hay for extra “chew time.” Consider adding a haynet or one of the slow feeders on the market to stretch eating time further.
Winter Enrichments and Activities for Horses
  • Browsing. You might be able to occasionally incorporate small branches of edible plants such as willow, cottonwood, bamboo, or blackberry vines. Weave a branch or vine into paddock fencing or incorporate a holder (think umbrella holder) into the paddock for this purpose. Important! Be sure to carefully research what plants in your area are safe and nontoxic for horses. Many species of plants, such as black walnut, yew, red maple, black locust, rhododendron, laurel, oak, and most fruit trees, are poisonous to horses. The ASPCA has a list of plants that are toxic and nontoxic to horses, or consult your veterinarian if you’re unsure.
  • Healthy treats. 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. These, along with other types of low-sugar treats available for purchase, can be fed in alternative locations to engage curiosity and food-hunting behavior.
  • Toys. Young horses, especially, might like playing with toys. Studies show that adult horses are less motivated by toys unless they are associated with food, such as with hay balls or treat licks.
Winter Enrichments and Activities for Horses
  • Scratching pads or brushes. This could be a large nylon brush or a worn-out broom head bolted safely to a wall or corner. A cow brush might work, as well. Or you might be able to screw a textured rubber door mat to a wall.
  • Friends. Equine companionship is important for horse welfare. In addition, you might want to consider other buddies for your horses, such as a burro or goat. Dogs, cats, and even chickens can provide entertainment for horses.
  • Turnout. Turn your horse out either by himself or with other horses to give them a chance to play and interact.
  • Exercise and grooming. Even if you can’t ride, you can still groom and maintain good hoof care for your horse. Perhaps you can hand-walk, longe, or do liberty work with your horse. Plan to exercise your horse a minimum of 30 minutes. 

Take-Home Message

Using a confinement area reduces winter’s impact on pastures and improves productivity for the next growing season, which means less money spent on supplemental feed and happier, healthier horses. But confinement areas can be stifling for some horses, lacking in physical and mental stimulus. Providing enrichment for horses in winter confinement does not have to be expensive and can be as simple as adding turnout time with others, providing forage in a more natural way, feeding a new type of feed or occasional treat, or giving your horse a food ball or lick. Or it might mean scheduling extra one-on-one time with your horse. Think outside the box, mix things up, and have fun together – and rest assured that you are supporting your horse’s emotional well-being at the same time.