A Happy Horse, Whatever the Weather

We can ALL face a challenge in our horsey lives from time to time. Keeping a happy balance of our horse’s physical, mental and emotional needs, isn’t always easy.

It was a temporary challenge with one of my own horses, Rocky, who inspired this very Blog!

Rocky is new to my equine family and so is the (rich) pasture we recently relocated to. Rocky LOVES his food so I was careful to avoid the dreaded laminitis by exhaustive hay soaking, muzzling, regular work and by using a bare turnout area.  When laminitis struck despite all my efforts, it took me by surprise. However with swift action and small management changes, Rocky’s recovery was speedy and he was out enjoying life again within just a few short weeks.

Every challenge we face teaches us something new and horses are especially wonderful teachers! So here is Rocky’s story laid out, in the hope that his situation, and the changes I made to help him, might benefit others. The tips I offer may also be of use for those on box rest or stabled for longer periods as the day becomes shorter and the mud becomes muddier!

Horses need horses.

Horses are highly sociable creatures. For a herd animal, social contact is hard wired into their DNA just like eating grass. It’s said that horses form bonds which are ten times stronger than people!

When the fundamental needs of horses are not met, behaviour stress and stereotypic behaviour patterns (STP’s) can occur. STP’s or ‘stable vices’ as they are generally known, are rarely seen in nature. This explains how the term ‘stable’ vice came into being! Box walking, weaving and cribbing are just some STP’s that may indicate the horse’s basic needs are not being met.

Rather than referring to them as stable ‘vices’, it’s more helpful to know it’s instead stress that is manifesting in behaviour changes.

So how do we keep sociable horses happy when stabled?

It’s always good to check the fundamental 3Fs- is your horse getting enough Forage, Freedom and Friend time?

It’s a known fact that horses who have social contact with other horses are less likely to develop a STP. Sadly, it’s also proven that as their time spent stabled increases, so does the risk of a STP being present.

The good news is that with a few changes we can help our horses. As with Rocky, a little planning and some tweaking of the routine here and there, means we can keep them happy, come rain or shine!

Tips from Rocky with Love…

  1. Keep buddies in view

As horses are prey, herd animals, it’s all about safety in numbers. Your horse will instinctively FEEL more secure with others close by. Horses show affection through touches and sniffs, but also by simply being close to one another.

  • I fenced a large, safe area outside Rocky’s stable so that his favourite mare and companion Lulu, could come and go. This way, she had freedom to roam between her own stable and the area outside Rocky’s stable, overnight. This gave him important social interaction and company for 12 hours. Close companionship means SO much to a stabled horse – I even caught them mutually grooming over Rocky’s door. For a healing patient, this brings relaxation and lowers the heart rate, so a win-win!
  • As I did for Rocky, consider erecting electric fencing, or swapping stables if it helps to keep others in view. This can make a huge difference in reducing ‘separation’ stress and anxiety. Reducing stress is proven to aid healing, along with enhancing general well-being.

2. Gradually de-sensitise.

Horses can become sensitised to things that they don’t particularly enjoy. This can be a variety of things such as loading in a trailer, frustration over feed time, a buddy leaving, to name just a few! We can help them instead to feel comfortable by ‘de-sensitising’ them. By doing VERY gradual and systematic repeats of the stimulus (i.e. rustling a carrier bag from far away, gradually getting closer) they learn there is nothing to fear. 

  • When Rocky’s favourite mare was turned out during the day into the paddock (in view), I walked and released her gradually by circling back toward him at his slightest sign of concern, which gave him reassurance.
  • We successfully edged further and further away, turning a circle each time he became at all concerned. I combined this with Tip 3 (below), for great effect!

As natural herd animals, cohesion means survival! So by moving a horse back toward an anxious buddy, you are replicating their innate herd behaviour. 

3. Use positive association

  • I held back from giving Rocky his hay (soaked, double netted!) until it was time to take others away.

If the Fundamental Forage need is being met this can over-ride the other F’s i.e. Freedom and Friends, temporarily at least! Ensure timing is optimal so feed at the same time horse(s) leave, and check that there is enough forage to last the duration they are alone. By doing this horses learn to associate something positive (eating!) whenever a buddy leaves.

This can work well with horses left in the stable area, as well as those left out in the field when others are brought in first.

More Top Tips to prevent separation stress

  • It may be a certain best buddy causing separation stress. If so think about changing the field set-up or the order they get turned out or brought in.
  • Enable the ‘left’ horse to move! By allowing an anxious horse to move their legs, it sends a message to the brain that they have fled the ‘uncomfortable’ situation. For prey animals this is a primal brain function linked to survival! That’s why even walking can calm an anxious horse.
  • If weather is bad or grazing limited, use a well fenced surface area (or arena!) for turn out. Bursts of daily freedom with scattered forage and a good buddy will really get your horse’s happy chemicals flowing!

Happy horse-ing, whatever the weather 🙂

For further reading, check these out;

  • Kiley-Worthington, M (1987) The behaviour of horses: in relation to management and training. JA Allen, London
  • McGreevy, P & French, NP & Nicol, CJ (1995) The prevalence of abnormal behaviours in dressage, eventing and endurance horses in relation to training, Veterinary record, 13, pp36-37

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