We all want our horses to be happy. Happy horses are pleasant to be around, learn quickly and interact with us well. Plus we feel rewarded when we’ve taken good care of our equine friends.
With that in mind, we thought we’d highlight 10 ways you can help make your horse’s days happy ones.
When we think of happy times in our lives, food often comes to mind. The same is probably true in your horse’s thinking. Food, in the form of grass or hay, is his primary need. Though he may kick his bucket demanding grain, keeping roughage working through his gut is instrumental to his happiness. It takes him about two days to process what he eats, so the grass he ate yesterday is still with him today.
Now that he’s eaten all that grass, he needs enough water to make soup in that fermentation vat we call the hindgut. Without enough water, that hay or grass begins to compact, and trouble follows. Water also plays an important role in the rest of the horse’s world. Want a happy horse? Make sure he has good-quality hay and fresh water.
You wouldn’t need an alarm clock if you lived in the barn. That’s because horses have a clock in their heads. Ask anyone who has to explain daylight-saving time to their horses. The better you can stick to a routine, the happier the horses are. That’s not just referring to time, either. Make any other changes gradually, too, such as feed, water and turnout times.
Horses need friends. They’re happy in a group situation, and if you see a horse who’s a loner, he probably has some problem. Perhaps he’s ill or hurting, or he’s been pushed out of the group. You’ll know right off that he’s not a happy camper. The buddy doesn’t have to be another horse, though that’s preferable.
Visual Stimulation and Ventilation
Ever walk through a dark barn full of horses? They usually have some type of grumpy behavior.
If you have to keep your horse in a barn, find some way to let him see other horses – perhaps using a stall guard instead of a solid door, when appropriate. Let cats live in the barn, so at least the horse can see cats playing in the aisle. And be sure plenty of fresh air flows through the barn, so he can breathe free and enjoy all the natural smells of the season.
Signs of an Ill or Unhappy Horse
- Change of attitude in the stable – depressed, aggressive, withdrawn
- Development of bad habits – weaving, cribbing, kicking, lunging, circling
- Boredom and lack of interest in surroundings
- Change in physical appearance – sunken, lackluster look
- Appetite changes – refusing grain, “bolting” (rapidly eating) grain
- Change in stall habits – previously “neat” stalls become messy and vice versa
- Training problems – stubbornness, spooking, short attention span
Many of the signs of an unhappy horse are the same as the onset of various illnesses. Discuss the symptoms with your veterinarian to rule out physical causes. Most importantly, understand your horse and his habits so that you are immediately aware of any change.
If you’ve ever had to keep a horse stall-bound due to an injury, you’ll know firsthand how much horses need to exercise to stay happy. That movement not only keeps their body in shape, but each step helps their feet get a good blood supply. Movement also helps the digestion process. If you have to keep your horse inside due to terrible weather or some other reason, see if you can let him walk – at least up and down the barn aisle.
Horses seem to need down time, just to be themselves and let down mentally, or maybe to kick up their heels. After a stressful period, perhaps following the show or racing season, you’ll find that many professionals turn their horses out for a few weeks.
If your horse lives in a busy barn with limited turnout time, putting him on the lunge line or working him in a round pen may give him exercise, but not the down time he probably craves. See if you can schedule some turnout for him, or at minimum hand-walk him, and let him graze on the lead rope a distance from the barn.
Vet and Farrier Care
No one’s happy when his feet hurt, and your horse is no exception. Once your horse’s feet get long or unbalanced, it would be like you walking in shoes with run-down heels. Pretty soon it’s going to affect his attitude as well as his performance.
Inadequate deworming will cause your horse to struggle with parasites, which can also make him unhappy. It won’t be long before he’ll be feeding “a cast of thousands,” and it will take a toll on his immune system, if not cause colic or heart problems.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to have your horse’s teeth checked. If he has sharp “points,” eating is not much fun because each bite irritates his cheeks.
“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is the universal horse motto, and we see it played out all the time. Stabled horses or horses without a buddy often don’t have that luxury, so here’s a place that you can really win points with your horse.
Groom him so that his skin is clean. That will also give you an opportunity to notice any bug bites or injuries. But also take the time to find those special spots he likes to have scratched. He’ll think pleasant thoughts of you, even when you’re not at the barn.
Give ’em a Job
Horses love to have a purpose, and it’s exciting for an owner to have a horse who knows his job. Take a look at some cutting horses, and you see that many of them love what they do. The same holds true when you see the care with which a therapeutic-riding horse moves with his precious cargo, or you see an event horse in the start box.
But horses don’t have to have a jazzy job to feel worthwhile. The retiree may see his job as coming for his carrot and having his feet picked out. And the lack of focus in an untrained horse may be the result of him not having found his place in the world. Simple things like telling the yearling where to stand, and praising him when he stands there (not scolding him when he’s in the wrong place) probably give him a sense that all’s right with the world. When we see that look come over our horses’ faces, that makes us happy, too.
Should you have any doubts about the best methods for managing your horse and keeping him content, consult your veterinarian or trainer for further suggestions. And if you sense that your horse isn’t happy, don’t ignore that intuition, especially if he’s usually upbeat. Changes in your horse’s apparent happiness often are the first signs that a health or lameness problem is brewing, just as you often feel less than chipper the day before you start to fight off a cold.
Making your horse happy will not only benefit him, it will enrich your life. Although we may be attributing human emotions to horses, most of us want to feel that our horses love us, and we will go to great lengths to ensure their happiness and comfort, as well we should.