There will most likely to be times during your horse’s lifetime that he will need to be confined to a stall: bad weather, an injury or a problem with the turnout area itself. In addition, a horse who has been out at pasture may suddenly find himself left in a small turnout paddock.
Faced with a young horse who needs stall rest, what are your choices? Colleen Cody faced this challenge with her young horse after he cracked his hip on a pasture gate. Left to his own devices, Silhi dug a wide, deep hole in his stall floor. This involved him moving the stall mats first, of course.
Despite having sheep and ducks to keep an eye on and plenty of visits from people and dogs plus another young horse for company, Silhi was not a happy camper.
At this point, the options tend to come down to three choices:
1. Drugging. Tranquilization can be necessary but should only be short term usage, not weeks of confinement. Even “calming” supplements (see sidebar) should not be used all the time. Exceptions to these rules include horses who are post op with serious injuries to heal.
2. Feed. Use a slow feeder, which makes the horse work harder getting to forage. Good-quality hay in a slow feeder will help to keep him occupied and keep his gastrointestinal tract working at optimal levels. We reviewed slow feeders in the November issue. Subscribers can access this at www.horse-journal.com.
3. Durable toys. Many mature horses adapt to less freedom and exercise reasonably well. A young horse, however, is more likely to pick up vices like digging and cribbing.
Balls with openings for the horse to shove around that then release treats through the holes can be fun. This can stretch out your horse’s eating time like a slow feeder.
Remember to include treats when looking at your horse’s entire diet. Three or four treat balls a day will add up to quite a few calories, especially for a horse with limited activity. A few horses may be startled at first by the movement of the toy but most adjust quickly when they realize food is involved.
Then there are straightforward toys. Balls may be perfectly round and depend on the horse to shove them with their nose or kick or push them with a leg. Others have a handle so your horse can pick up the toy and wave it around or even throw it. The handle will also allow you to hang it up for your horse to bat around if he wants to.
Remember to be careful if your young horse becomes an enthusiastic ball player. Being whacked in the head by a vigorous shake of a hard ball could knock you for a loop. Also, pay attention to the other horses stalled nearby. Some may not be comfortable with banging coming from the stall next door. Some horses become adept at tossing the ball over a stall wall, especially if there are folks around willing to toss it back, but, of course, this can become a hazard if it lands on an unsuspecting neighbor.
While most equine toys are fairly expensive, you can try making toys out of some household items. An empty gallon plastic jug can be hung from the stall ceiling for a horse to bat around or left down for some kicking and tossing.
Some people advocate half filling jugs with water to weigh them down a bit, but only do that if you’re prepared to deal with water leaking all over the stall. Others put small rocks in the jug so that it makes noise when the horse bats it around. An old soccer ball can be a sturdy horse toy, but most basketballs and footballs don’t stand up to real horseplay for long.
A radio or CD/MP3 player is a good addition to any barn. Most horses enjoy music and the right kind of music may help to keep your horse calm but interested.
Click here for more information on specific: Stall Toys and Tricks
While there are often barn debates among the humans in the stable about whether to have music playing or not, earlier this year Clare Carter, an equine student at Hartpury College in England, experimented to see if she could figure out what music, if any, horses prefer.
Among her trial horses, she determined that jazz raised stress levels, followed closely by rock. Classical and country music were more soothing. I recall a Morgan in a barn years ago who loved the song, “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.” When that song came on the barn radio, Don would dance and jive with his head bebopping in the stall. No other song got that kind of reaction from him.
Having some ducks or chickens in a stall your horse can observe will provide some quiet entertainment. Some horses do have fowl/feather allergies, but a well-ventilated barn should help. A goat or cat can provide quiet company so your horse still feels he has a “herd” even if it is a small and unusual one.
Don’t forget your attention. Daily grooming will make your horse feel that he’s still part of the daily routine. Consider clicker training to keep your horse mentally engaged. Horses can learn to identify letters and have shown some real talent at scent games with hidden treats. Use a clicker to teach bending the neck to both sides and some stretches, which could benefit your horse in the long run. (We’ll discuss clicker training in an future issue.)
Bottom Line. Overall, we think slow-feed devices are the best way to keep your horse occupied. If that’s not enough, consider one of the toys in our chart. We’re going to try the empty plastic milk jug with rocks first because, well, we’re frugal. And it’s clearly inexpensive.
With the toys, some of it depends a little on your situation. We love and recommend the Equi-Spirit Cordura Ball; however, it’s probably going to be a little big for horses stuck in a small stall. For those, we recommend the Amazing Graze treat dispenser, which is easy for horses to use and enjoy.
Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Deb Eldredge, DVM.