Enrichment as a Supplement

Enrichment is a new concept to the horse world it’s vital we get this information out there. Enrichment sounds like a kindness, like providing an extra gift to our horses, but it’s actually a necessity. If you went to a zoo and watched a lion sit in the middle of a 40x40ft enclosure, with plenty of grass, food, and water – but nothing else – you would be horrified. If it were an elephant, rhino, hippo, or zebra, standing out in a barren field we would watch with sorrow. We’d likely see the animals pacing, circling, weaving, digging, chewing, becoming destructive, or just laying about with nothing to do. We recognize in these exotic animals the need for regular stimulation, ways to mimic their natural lifestyle and habitat. When we have an animal in a domestic or captive setting, we can measure their welfare by watching their behaviors. We watch and analyze an animal’s behavior in nature and compare it to domestication. If a species covers alot of ground, moving around alot, or if they have a stationary home area, spending more time at rest. If they exercise in short, extreme bursts, or slow, continuous exercise over a period of time. We can look at how they socialize, how often and with whom, with multiple species or just the same species, with males or females, small groups or large. We can determine how much time they invest in searching for food, how much effort and what types of food they consume. Do they eat off the ground, bushes, or trees? How do they problem solve variations in nature, breaking ice in water, digging for grass under the snow and so on. We learn how animals would choose to live their lives when they have free choice to do as they please, then we compare the behaviors expressed with our domestic species.

When we compare nature to domestication, we want to think about if our horses are spending as much time eating, sleeping, moving, socializing, and anything else you may want to look at. We want to closely match these figures. For example, we know that horses are grazers, they consume little bits of food slowly throughout the day, not going longer than an hour or so without consuming some sort of food. We know they spend much of their day moving slowly about their area – only speeding up when fleeing for safety or playing. We know they like time to rest while standing and a few hours (split up into chunks) laying down to rest. We know they like socializing with safe peers, particularly of their same species – but they can form bonds with other species as well. Unfortunately, domestication makes it complicated to meet these needs. We have a delicate balance between maintaining our horses’ safety and meeting their emotional and physical needs. The search for safety often limits these freedoms and makes these needs hard to meet, especially when health or climate add difficulties.

This is where enrichment comes in. Enrichment is our supplement, it’s our band-aid, used to patch together the flaws in our domestic settings. Every farm has different pros and cons, different aspects they need to supplement. Some farms may have beautiful pastures, but only turn out for a few hours, while others may have small mud fields horses live in 24/7. Some may feed many small meals throughout the day, while others may feed only one or two large meals a day. We also have cases where health requires our horses to stay in small dry lots, or even on stall rest. We have weather issues that may make turn out dangerous or impossible. There can also be times where our horses’ don’t match socially with our other horses – we picked them to meet our desires, not because they are most likely to be friends with each other. These are cases where we can provide enrichment in an attempt to meet their needs.

We often think enrichment is just toys, silly fun things, but these toys can be a vital way to help horses express their much needed natural behaviors. Enrichment can provide toys that allow horses to paw, dig, forage, and problem solve for food. We can provide varieties of safe forage and seasonal plants to spice up their daily menu. We can use feeder objects that encourage movement and trickle feeding. We can even use enrichment to engage new social situations, with the use of mirrors, plush toys, new species, or varying over the fence friends. We can use these toys as a way to bring out the curiosity and play in a horse who’s been shut down or are fearful. We can use variations in our fields, different substrates, gravels, even water to provide nice resting spots, places to cool off, or natural hoof filing. We can provide other animal waste to investigate, essential oils, herbs, or perfumes to provide interesting scents to explore. We can also explore many man-made objects like gym mats, balls, stuffed animals, cones, and tarps, as fun ways to engage our horses’ minds and bodies. To help them learn balance, coordination, to desensitize to situations they may have to handle in domestication, and to prepare them for a variety of life experiences. These objects all fill voids in a horse’s life, providing un-natural ways to express natural behaviors. These allow our animals to express a full range of emotions and behaviors, living a full life, even when our situations limit our choices.

Enrichment is a wonderful tool. It doesn’t replace proper horse-care, no enrichment will replace real socializing with peers, real grazing, and natural movement throughout the day – but it does provide a wonderful addition to proper horse-care or supplement during a period of time where their needs can’t necessarily be met naturally. Enrichment is a Supplement not a Substitute for proper horse care.