Owning horses in the winter is the ultimate test of will power.
When Leo and I were living in New York there were weeks at a time when the thermometer wouldn’t get above 10ºF, days where the barn door wouldn’t open, and entire months where I prayed my car would make it the 6 miles to the barn. Even though we’ve said goodbye to 8′ snowdrifts, winter in Seattle is no walk in the park. Last winter Leo’s hooves disappeared into a sea of mud…and so did his shoes.
As hard as winter can be on me, I realize it can be much tougher for Leo. His turnout drops to nothing, he’s stuck in the same arena every day, and there’s hardly a single piece of grass anywhere. His whole world becomes downright boring.
So when winter comes around I dig out my (figurative!) tool kit and set out to beat Leo’s boredom blues.
Behavioral enrichment … is an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.
Enrichment is simply adding some spice to your horse’s life. It can be positive or negative and encourages natural behaviors and reactions. For example, horses flip their lip up and make a stank face when they smell something funny (Flehmen Response). Enriching your horse makes life more exciting and challenging. We all know how a horse who is not challenged mentally and physically can turn into a gremlin. So, to keep Leo looking fuzzy and nice and not trying to kill me, I focus on enrichment during the winter months.
For starters I jazz up Leo’s stall and barn environment. His NEIGHbor (pun very intended) has the crème-de-la-crème of stalls. The photos above are just a few of the ways his owner beats his boredom. He has 2 types of puzzle feeders, a lick it with a spot for a jolly ball, a slow feeder, and two types of salt licks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him looking bored or acting up in his stall because he has extra energy.
Just Give Me The Treat!
For Leo I’ve made my own puzzle feeder — Instructions Here. I stuff it with grain and watch him push it around his stall or bang it against the wall. I also hide treats — Recipes Here — on a ledge in his stall. It’s about 6′ high so he has to reach and stretch his lips to grab them. I don’t do food enrichment very often. Leo asked me to help him keep his summer figure.
What’s that smell?
Leo has always been a mild cribber. A dab of hot sauce on his favorite crib spots seems to do the trick to stop this behavior and it’s scent enrichment. Okay, so it’s not exactly positive scent enrichment, but I can see how the smell affects him. His nostrils flare, ears prick, he usually starts salivating, he’s interested!
For more positive scent enrichment I’ve tried rubbing peppermint, tea tree, and lavender oil around his stall. Some horses LOVE this! Leo thinks it’s totally lame.
What Do You Have There?
-Enrichment Tool Kit-
Horses are just as cautious as they are curious. So, showing them to new things is just as terrifying as it is exciting. During winter I like to take the time to show Leo a few new “spookable” items to keep things interesting.
I have things like a mirror, streamers, and pie tins I keep in my trunk. Every so often I will hang them in or outside of his stall (judge the safety of each item to know where to hang it). When first showing Leo an item I keep it away from all exits and food. I don’t want to over stress him or make him feel trapped if he is genuinely afraid of it.
I show the item to Leo and, as long as he doesn’t look like a fire breathing dragon, I leave it in his stall and go about my chores.
Tip: introduce new items when the barn is empty. You don’t want to accidentally scare another horse!
Tune in to the Emily + Leo Variety Hour
Tap into your creativity and find ways to keep your horse entertained. Leo clearly was horrified by this tarp.
The second half to an active winter is enriching your horse’s routine. And yes, our lives turn into a 1960’s variety show. We work on everything from transitions, to lateral movement, to showmanship, to bareback. Some days all we do is walk and halt. The trick is just to never have the same ride two days in a row.
At a Buck Brannaman clinic a few years back he said to work on something for no more than five minutes, go do something else and come back to it a while later to see what your horse remembered. This advice completely changed how Leo and I ride together. Leo is ridiculously clever and gets bored easily, so hammering in a point is futile. It usually turns into Leo thinking “how can I get out of doing this/freak mom out.” Changing up his routine not only uses different parts of his body and brain, it keeps him interested in what we are doing.
There are days where the weather is too nasty, or the arena too busy to work him. Those are the days Leo’s reminded of his manners. We stay in the barn picking up feet, leading in and out of stalls, or standing still for like 5 seconds. These days are lllooonnnggg for me, as someone who has little patience or stick-to-itiveness. If something doesn’t work the first time, well then I must be doomed to fail forever! All the more reason for me to work on these behaviors with Leo!
At the end of the day you know your horse better than anyone. These suggestions are what work well for Leo and me, but tailor a routine that you and your horse can be happy with. Got any of your own tips to keeping your horse’s life from being a total snooze fest? Share below! And as always please Facebook, Pin, and share this post with friends and family.