Imagine a four year-old child fed on a diet high in starchy and sugary foods – lots and lots of excitable energy right? Now, imagine that same child is housed in a 3 meter by 4 meter playpen outside. The playpen has no toys, not much shade nor grass. There are not many friends around, and those that are there aren’t reachable as they are in separate playpens.
What do you think will inevitably develop in terms of this child’s behaviour? The child will get bored of going around and around the playpen and will begin to become frustrated. The heat and lack of shade will begin to escalate that frustration and the child will become angry. Tiredness from a lack of comfortable areas to rest will escalate the anger even further and the child will ultimately begin to cry, scream, bang on the doors and display multiple forms of undesirable behaviours.
In much the same way, a horse placed in a 3 x 4 paddock with only a bucket of water and a hay net, no shade, grass or other horses to interact with, will also quickly become bored, frustrated and will begin to display undesirable behaviours.
Cognitively, an adult horse is not much different than a four year-old child in terms of their ability to process information and interact with their environment. Horses as far as we know don’t have the ability to reason therefore they are unable to take their poor situation and know that in a few hours’ time their owner will be coming and moving them out of the uncomfortable situation. All they know is that at present, their environment doesn’t satisfy their basic needs and is therefore boring, uncomfortable and lonely. Without the ability of foresight, the horse’s behaviour will progressively become more and more maladaptive as their needs remain unmet.
Basic equine needs and their importance from a cognitive perspective
Precocial species (born with a high degree of independence), such as horses, are well adapted to quickly processing information from their environment as they would not survive very long after birth if this wasn’t the case. Horses learn from interacting with their environment, from experimenting with various stimuli to ascertain the outcome (trial and error), and from social interactions with other horses, their dam at first, and then other herd members. This means that horses are constantly processing information either as internal (from the body) or external (from the environment) stimuli and are either reacting to the stimulus in the form of a behavioural response which could be voluntary or involuntary, or they are ignoring the stimulus from prior learning, such as what occurs during habituation.
Involuntary responses are reflex behaviours, generally biological in their function, which the body performs automatically independent of the brain i.e. the horse doesn’t think about doing it, it happens automatically. Breathing, urinating, drinking, mating – these are all responses to biological needs. Voluntary responses are behavioural responses that are performed voluntarily by the horse for a specific reason and involve the brain; the horse is behaving due to previous experience and learned (memorised) behaviour, or is learning through interactions with its environment (trial and error learning). Eating a toxic plant will have negative consequences for the horse which will quickly be committed to memory and learned, so that when encountering the same type of plant in the future, the horse will know to avoid it.
Horses are a social species meaning that they rely on conspecifics (members of the same species) to learn, develop, grow, reproduce and ultimately survive in their environment. Majority of natural horse behaviours are facilitated by social functions i.e. mutual grooming, grazing, resting, sexual behaviour, play, learning etc. Socialisation is therefore one of the most important basic needs, together with foraging and grazing, and movement.
Foraging and grazing serve many important purposes, key of which are to: (1) supply the body with energy and nourishment, (2) facilitate other bodily functions that require energy (digestive system, thermoregulation, muscular system etc.), and (3) provide a mentally stimulating activity for nearly 70% of the day*.
In a natural environment, the nutritional quality of the available plants and grasses may be low, however the variety of different plants, grasses, bushes and small trees will supply the horse with ample hours of stimulating and engaging activity. Trees and bushes will also provide natural shelters from the sun and rain, and act as natural windbreaks. Movement and natural behaviours go hand-in-hand – the horse requires movement for almost all of its daily activities. Even resting is performed while standing thanks to the stay apparatus**.
Movement facilitates nearly all other equine basic and biological needs. It also facilitates learning through exploration and investigation, and facilitates social activities through play, mutual grooming, hierarchy structures and fighting. Movement is essential to survival and activates two vital tools of survival – the flight or fight response, the former which allows the horse to automatically and swiftly flee from a threat or attack, while the latter enables the horse to use specific agonistic responses to attack or defend itself from predators and other opponents; and the startle response which is a series of behavioural reactions to frightening stimuli that are less intense than fight or flight responses and are essential to the learning process and maintaining balance in the environment.
Startle responses serve to habituate the horse to initially frightening environmental stimuli which will gradually become neutral and the horse will stop responding to them. Imagine if this wasn’t the case, the horse would be exhausted if it jumped and bolted at every creaking branch or rustling bush. The horse’s highly evolved sensory organs become accustomed to recognising when a stimulus is a viable threat and requires the flight response, or when it is a normal environmental stimulus that can be ignored.
*Horses in the wild have been noted to graze and forage for 16 or more hours per day, which is at a minimum 67% of their daily time budget (McGreevy, 2004).
**Due to a series of muscle contractions just above the patella (kneecap) activated when the hind foot is placed on the ground, the stifle joint in the hindquarters locks in place, allowing the horse to remain balanced while standing upright during resting or sleeping. This locking action of the stifle joint is referred to as the stay apparatus (Sellnow, 2006).
It is clear therefore that the ability to satisfy basic equine needs is a key factor in maintaining healthy cognitive functioning in horses, and that the environmental context of where these behaviours occur is just as important as the act of satisfying them. To elaborate, let’s use the same example of the horse housed in a sparse, 3 x 4 paddock. Within its current environment the horse is certainly able to satisfy most basic needs – it can eat, drink, move around, rest, urinate etc. It may even be able to see other horses nearby and vocalise to them or have limited contact. But if you fast forward a few hours and add in heat or wind and slowly the horse will want to find some shade or will have built up excess energy and want to run around. Very quickly the adequate environment becomes inadequate and boredom and frustration sets in.
3 easy ways to cognitively enrich your horse’s environment:
House horses in groups instead of individually
One of the biggest impacts you can make in terms of enrichment is through socialisation and increasing the social contact your horse has throughout the day with other horses.
Keeping horses in groups during turnout as well as stabling is not as complicated as it may seem. Here are some tips for group housing:
- Group horses according to preferred social partners and temperament. In other words, keep horses that get along well together, and separate those that don’t. Having multiple smaller groups that are stable and calm is much better than one large group that is constantly in turmoil.
- Ensure that there is enough space and resources for horses to use safely and to spread out. This will lower the frequency of agonistic interactions as disagreements in groups are normally around food, water and space.
- In terms of fixed structures such as shelters or boxes, make sure that you eliminate corners at exits/entrances to avoid creating areas where horses could get boxed in when trying to get away from each other.
- Grouping horses in even numbers will encourage pair bonding and contribute to a stable herd.
Don’t be alarmed or immediately split your horses up at the first sign of fighting – remember that agonistic behaviours among horses are natural and they almost always look ‘louder’ and more frightening than what they actual are. Most ‘fights’ between domestic horses are actually more play-based rather than aggressive and normally revolve around personal space and resources. Pair bonded horses will often be seen displaying agonistic behaviours with one another as they tend to share much more personal space and therefore also resources with one another than other herd members and therefore get in each other’s way more. Think of it in the same way as siblings sharing a room, yes you’re going to get fights and arguments but ultimately the relationship is strong.
When should you split groups up?
The only time you would split your group up is when there are serious injuries occurring or other health problems, such as resource guarding, where one or more horses are preventing others from reaching water or feed sources which could impact on health and well being. In these instances, an increase in space and resources can be effective at calming the group, but if this isn’t possible due to space or other restrictions then splitting the group up into smaller groups or pairs will be necessary. Adding a simple barrier such as light fencing to contain each group, while still allowing visual and limited tactile contact, can be enough to maintain harmony.
Periods of discord will naturally arise when new horses are introduced into the group or if the group’s environment changes in a major way. In these cases you should just monitor the group for a few days and watch their behaviour until it stabilises – intense agonistic behaviours should calm down and become fairly infrequent.
If you’ve decided to split your group up then keeping pair bonded horses together is a must – splitting pair bonds up can have detrimental impact on welfare and should only be done if horses are being moved to different locations.
Provide foraging opportunities to promote grazing and movement
A dusty, barren paddock with more sand than grass is most certainly an inadequate and unhealthy environment for a horse to be kept in for any amount of time throughout the day, and can contribute not only to psychological and behavioural problems, but to health issues such as colic and respiratory problems as well. It would only be acceptable to use such paddocks as temporary holding pens to contain a horse for routine procedures or between training, provided that fresh water and adequate grass hay is given during confinement.
An ideal paddock should allow for ample foraging and grazing, and consist of a variety of plant materials such as mixed grasses, bushes, herbs, medicinal plants and small trees, all of which must be safe and non-toxic for horses to ingest and interact with.
Wild grass fields make for the best paddocks as they closely mimic the low nutritional quality pastures that horses would naturally have grazed on, and what their digestive systems are optimally designed for. Horses also love to nibble on trees, dig for roots, and scrape off bark from trees. Ensuring that your paddock allows for these natural behaviours to occur is certainly the best option, but it’s not always possible as we are often limited by space and resources.
What if my paddock is small and sparsely vegetated?
If you have a small paddock with a limited variety of plants and grasses or one made entirely of concrete, a good way to mimic natural grazing and encourage foraging and movement is to spread your horse’s feed across multiple locations and introduce various grasses and plant materials. Use containers that are as low to the ground as possible to also mimic the natural grazing positions.
How can I protect my one paddock from over-grazing?
If you have all your horses on one larger paddock it can quickly become over-grazed and barren. To protect your paddock and limit grazing try creating a track system which still promotes movement and the act of foraging but limits the area covered by your horses and can turn one large space into multiple areas that can be used throughout the year. Track systems can also help you keep multiple groups separate in one large field. If you’re interested in learning more about track systems, here is a good place to start.
Beware the nutritional quality of the grass and pasture you provide during stabling and turnout – too much lush, green grass can cause weight issues and can lead to more serious problems such as laminitis. You should always monitor your horse’s body condition and score them frequently to ensure they are maintaining an ideal body score.
Horses are inherently curious animals and they learn by interacting with stimuli within their environment. One of the best ways to enrich a space and prevent boredom and frustration is to ensure that the environment is full of investigative stimuli for your horse to explore and interact with.
You can use either artificial items that aren’t naturally available in the paddock or emphasise natural existing objects already available. Here is a list of some artificial items you can use as investigative stimuli in your paddock, no matter the size:
- Metal or plastic drums
- Tires of varied sizes
- Wooden or PVC ground poles
- Buckets or containers of varied sizes – make sure they are made from sturdy materials
- Tarps or rubber mats
- Flag poles
- Jump uprights
- Plastic cones of varying sizes and shapes
- Football-sized rubber or strong plastic balls
There are an assortment of equine toys available that can also stimulate exploration and investigation, especially those linked to food rewards.
Always make sure that any items you add are made from non-toxic materials and are safe for your horse to interact with – anything that can break into sharp pieces or small pieces should be avoided as this can cause damage and injury to you horse. Ropes, nets and materials should also carefully be monitored and avoided if possible as these can get caught around the legs and cause injury.
Make sure that you introduce new objects carefully and slowly to your horse to avoid causing fear and potentially causing harm. Don’t overload the environment with objects, stick to three items at a time and introduce new items individually.
Natural elements not only provide the best stimuli but can also promote other natural behaviours and contribute to the amount of movement a horse performs throughout the day. This in turns contributes to overall physical health as well as maintaining cognitive stimulation through the day. The below elements make for effective natural enhancers to paddocks:
Shallow water sources such as streams or ponds can be great play areas, spots to cool off in, or additional drinking sources. You could also build your own shallow pool if your paddock doesn’t have an existing water source.
Creating varied terrains through the use of tracks and natural corridors of vegetation, or banking up some sections to create rises, mimics a natural, dynamic landscape and promotes movement and exploration. Adding texture to the terrain by using various footings such as dirt, gravel, grass, bark or wood chip etc. can promote physical development and create multiple areas within one space. Adding sand patches can promote rolling and resting especially if placed in shady areas.
Large trees, logs or stumps are great natural scratching posts while clumps of trees and bushes are good places for horses to rest as the sheltered space promotes a feeling of safety and also provides protection from the sun, wind or rain. Sticks and fallen branches can be great oral stimulants and promote foraging and movement. Artificial objects such as tires, drums and poles can be added if there is a lack of vegetation as they will also stimulate oral and tactile exploration. If natural shade is sparse then you will need to provide a shelter or shaded area in your paddock that can protect your horse from the elements during turnout.
Horses will eventually habituate to any artificial items and will stop interacting with them. To maintain a level of interest and exploration, make sure that you periodically change up the objects in the paddock either by changing their angles, their orientation or position, or swapping them out for other objects. It’s best to keep at least three objects in the paddock at a time and then swap them out every week or so. This will of course depend on the size of your paddock and herd. Larger groups of horses will benefit most from social interactions therefore environmental stimuli will be less important and larger paddocks allow for more natural stimuli, reducing the need for too many artificial objects. In cases where you have smaller enclosures and horses that are housed individually, artificial objects become more necessary.
Welfare as a key consideration
Whilst most domestic environments strive to provide horses with safe and mostly comfortable facilities, they generally fail to account for the horse’s active mind and cognitive needs, and this is actually what primarily leads to the development of problematic behaviours associated with housing in stables and paddocks such as cribbing, wood chewing, box walking and damaging property by kicking at fences or doors (commonly referred to as stereotypies, these are seemingly pointless behaviours that the horse performs repetitively and almost compulsively for no obvious reason).
The development of stereotypies is generally viewed as a welfare concern and a sign of a poor, inadequate environment, therefore anytime that a horse shows signs of stereotypic behaviour, the easiest and swiftest way of managing and halting the behaviour is to assess the environment and look at ways of enriching it not only to improve the physical well being of the horse but to improve cognitive well being as well.
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Available at: https://thehorse.com/164978/body-condition-scoring-horses-step-by-step/
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All-natural-horse-care, 2006. Paddock Paradise. [Online]
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McGreevy, P., 2004. Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. London: Elsevier Limited.
Sellnow, L., 2006. Anatomy & Physiology – The Complete Series. The Horse Publication. Available at: http://www.thehorse.com [Accessed 1 June 2018].