Most people buy their horses toys because they assume horses get “bored,” and they probably do. After all, cats love balls, yarn and catnip mice. Dogs enjoy rawhide and squeak toys. Even pet birds like mirrors, bells and beads.
Are there equivalents with similar universal appeal to horses' We thought we’d find out, trying several different equine toys with a variety of “bored” horses.
Psychology Of Play
“Play” to us implies enjoyment and amusement. Animals may like to play, too, but it also has some specific functional/developmental elements. Young animals, like young people, play the most. Some of this is all that youthful energy, but play also has a purpose. Kittens love to hide, pounce, sprint across any surface and tussle — all important precursors to hunting behavior. Dogs play a little differently, with more focus on chasing and herding, but also enjoy tugging, ripping and shredding (as in shoes and furniture).
The different patterns of play correlate with different hunting styles — cats relying on ambush and bursts of speed to catch their prey, while dogs are more likely to wear down their prey with long runs and rushing in to inflict injuries. Animals with higher intelligence (like humans) can also be amused by more complex and challenging tasks — such as blocks and puzzles.
Young and old horses alike are also often observed in “play” using survival-related activities. Left to his own devices and provided with enough room to do so, the good-feeling horse’s first move is to run hard (unless he’s so packed full of pent-up energy he has to throw in a few phenomenal bucks first). While we may not think of shying as “play,” in the case of the horse who is just full of energy and not normally prone to shying, a good game of “monster-in-the-bushes” is probably a form of play, too.
Foals at play often practice the observe-startle-run sequence. Young colts play at mounting and fighting behavior from an early age. Fillies spend more time involved with learning and sharpening their social skills, training for herd interactions by observing their dams and practicing forming and dissolving/reorganizing groups within the band. While hell hath no fury like an outraged alpha mare, the ladies do not engage in pointless/play aggression.
However, even “quiet” geldings can have some good old-fashioned toy fun. We heard from a reader who told us she has five geldings pastured together. She has four horse-toy balls in the field and also cuts up lengths of hose (the non-reinforced ones, as the “strings” can pop out and be a potential hazard) for them to play with. On several occasions, she has seen her geldings play tug-of-war with the hoses and has even noted two of them playing with one ball at the same time. This field of geldings may be more the exception than the rule, but they do prove some horses will play with toys.
Our 20 test horses included fillies, mares, colts, geldings and stallions, age 1 year to 10+. We had an incredible variety of toys and were quite excited about this test.
The Horse Pas-a-Fier, designed for cribbers, was ignored by our cribbing filly even when placed directly over her feed tub, which was her favorite cribbing spot. We tried taking out the feed tub, but she simply wasn’t interested.
Boredom Breaker is a hanging toy featuring a skewer that allows you to hang apples or carrots in the center of the toy. This caught the attention of the horses — until the treats were gone. The manufacturer also makes an apple-flavored “lick” you can insert that would last longer.
Horseballs provided us with a fun video that showed several horses vigorously playing with their toy balls (most, if not all, appeared to be colts or geldings) — again, like our reader’s geldings, proof that some horses will play with toys.
We also know of a few stallions who regularly “work out” with hanging balls, including the Jolly Ball.
The various balls we received (see chart) and the Apple Toy generated little interest when they were either placed in the stall or paddock loose, especially among the older horses.
One stud colt played with his for a few days then lost interest. None of the others paid any attention to them, except one filly who would pick up the toys and unceremoniously toss them out of the stall — at least she was using them.
The Stall Ball has rattles inside and was great fun for the humans who tried to introduce it, but the horses gave it a wide berth when on their own.
The Pasture Pal Recreational Feeder, into which you place grain that is dispersed out of small holes in the rotating drum feeder as the horse rolls it around, gets the horse’s attention. The grain falls out of the drum onto a base, which provides a clean surface for the horse to eat the grain. However, many horses left the feeder before getting all the grain out.
Still, we found it has advantages beyond being a toy. Horses that bolt their feed or habitually throw it around are much less likely to do so with this device since they receive only small amounts at a time.
When mounted at ground level, the horse that cribs before, during or after feeding is much less likely to do so since he or she cannot fix his jaw and neck muscles as effectively in this position.
We believe this “toy” is also good for other boredom-related behaviors as it reliably keeps the horse occupied by getting his attention with something he is unlikely to ignore — food. The holes can be adapted to use hay cubes instead of grain/pellets (cut an appropriate sized window in the drum or simply widen the existing outlets).
We recommend secure mounting to prevent horses from tipping the feeder or dislodging the drum if they become annoyed/frustrated by a slow rate of grain release. We would not use it in a stall with horses that are highly agitated stall walkers, easily startled or prone to charging the bars. They could easily forget the device is there, especially at floor level, and bang into it.
The manufacturer also sells the rotating drum separately as the Pasture Pal, so that a horse can push it around on pasture instead of having it on a stationary base. We agree with the Horseballs company that the Pasture Pal itself should only be used on lush pasture. As a matter of fact, we’re concerned about feeding grain on the ground under any circumstances.
Scented vs. Unscented Toys
You’re likely to be told that scented toys are better than ordinary vinyl. There’s some truth to this.
Apple scent is popular for many things, from toys to supplements, but it doesn’t exactly drive most horses wild. It was the sweet-scented (molasses, maple or sugar cookie) Eggbutt Horseball or Stallball Horseball that attracted the horses enough to make them at least check the ball out. The manufacturer reports that peppermint is a favorite with older horses and stallions. Young foals introduced to balls shortly after birth lick at the sweet-scented ones for the first four to five days of life.
Although none of our test horses really played with any of these toys the way we hoped, yours could be an exception. We know of enough horses who do play with toys to not rule out their use. Mouthy horses, like youngsters and stallions, are most likely to enjoy balls.
Problem is, you have no way of telling ahead of time if your horse would be one of the ones to enjoy a ball or other toy. Even testers who thought their horses would probably play with a toy were disappointed in the reactions.
The one product that was an exception was the Pasture Pal Recreational Feeder. Because it gets and keeps the horse’s attention by a universally appealing stimulus — food — it has a wide appeal and keeps the horses occupied and therefore less likely to indulge in any vices.
If space or safety considerations require a hangin g toy, our choice is the Boredom Breaker.