Cabin Fever Cure

When the horses in your care can’t get physical exercise, use these 10 tips to exercise their minds. Be sure to check out the slideshow and video accompanying this article.

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

At least one rule your mother instilled in you—don’t play with your food—is worth breaking in the barn. Invest in hanging toys containing treats, like Likit or Jolly Stall toys, Horsey Knibblers or EquiDisks, or get toys that make horses work for their treats by rolling them around, like Nose-Its or Pasture Pals. One caution from Heleski: If you’re using floor-level treat dispensing toys, you need to keep the stall clean.

4. Let Them Socialize.

Even if the horses can’t go out for socialization, getting to see their companions is very important. Stalls with sturdy bars or wire grids on the top half of the walls allows muzzle-to-muzzle interaction and visual contact.

5. Let Them Be Nosey

“If you have a stall with an option of having a window open, they can see what’s going on,” says Heleski.

Likewise with stall doors that allow the horse to hang its head into the aisle: “As long as it’s not a horse that is a danger to the people walking by, this is a good option.”

If certain stalls have better vantage points than others, move your stall-kept horse there so it can keep tabs on the comings and goings of staff and equine friends.

6. Let Them Explore Their Bedding

A concern with using straw bedding is the potential for colic. On the plus side, Heleski says horses bedded in straw will keep themselves occupied by searching the stall for edible bits, and this is a good thing, as long as they don’t eat too much. Try it out with your stall-kept horses while keeping them under observation.

7. Let Them Be Vain

The sight of a horse—even if it is just itself—can be a boredom reducer. Heleski points out that at least one study (at the University of Lincoln in England) points to the use of mirrors as a method to curb weaving.

Shatterproof acrylic mirrors or stainless steel panels are safer than glass.

8. Let Them Entertain Themselves.

Like an activity station for toddlers, toys with a range of entertainment options are being marketed for horses. The Neigh Station offers a mirror, a latch and a hanging toy for the stall-kept horse’s enjoyment.

Whether one activity will keep a horse more occupied than another is hard to say, and it depends on the horse. Heleski says one study done at Michigan State University showed that half of the weanlings seemed to have fun playing with the cross-tie chains hanging on their stall walls. “There’s really no way to get inside the horse’s brain and ask, but it seemed they were enjoying doing this and reducing boredom,” she says.

9. Let Them Sing Along.

Heleski says there is a commonly held belief that horses enjoy music in the barn, but there are no definitive studies on the subject. A study at the University of Leicester in England showed dairy cows produce more milk when listening to music in the milking barn, but whether their equine counterparts are musically inclined has yet to be seen.

10. Let Them (And You) Be Put to Work.

Attention from you, your staff and the horse’s owner is also important for a stall-kept horse. Daily grooming and interaction will keep the horse engaged and keep its manners in check. Sometimes handlers go easy on pushy behavior coming from horses that are sick or injured, but there is no reason every horse can’t behave well with light ground work.


EquiDisk —

Health EZ Hay Feeder —

Jolly Stall Snacks —

Likit —

Neigh Station —

NoseIt —

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