Horse and pony enrichment refers to the process of providing stimuli or activities for animals in order to keep them mentally stimulated. Horses can be groomed, ridden, fed treats, taken on walks or hikes, given a new toy, or even just watched by their owner.
Even as a beginner, you can do many things to enrich your horse or pony’s life. Enrichment activities to consider include personally:
- Providing mental stimulation
This will not only benefit your horse or pony, but it will make having your new family member feel more fulfilling.
This is a beginner’s guide to horse and pony enrichment. Keep reading to learn more about how you can achieve the happiest life for your equine animal.
What Does Enrichment Mean for Horses and Ponies?
Enrichment for horses and ponies is extremely important for many reasons. There are four main goals of enrichment:
- Increasing Behavioural Diversity
- Preventing the Development of Abnormal Behaviours
- Positively Influencing how a horse sees its environment
- Increasing the horse’s ability to cope
Horses are very complex animals, and there are a lot of things they need to be stimulated, entertained, and mentally healthy. Equipping your horses with tools for enrichment will allow them to flourish in the environment you provide for them.
There are many different types of horse and pony enrichment. The different categories of enrichment include:
- Nutritional enrichment
- Occupational enrichment
- Physical enrichment
- Sensory enrichment
- Social enrichment
It is possible to take a deep dive into each category as it has its own focus. There are many different ways that horses and ponies can gain enrichment and stimulation within these areas.
Building a Bond with Your Horse or Pony
When you are getting into the equestrian lifestyle, the most important bond and relationship you will have is that with your horse or pony. Building this bond is extremely important as it sets the groundwork for the rest of your relationship and future together.
A few ways to build this bond with your horse include:
- Assuming the responsibility for your horse’s care
- Doing groundwork and simple exercises to train your horse
- Doing most of the training yourself, so your horse knows that you are the one in control
- Grooming your horse regularly
- Providing an enriching space for them to thrive
- Working on agility together
It’s important to remember that this is your horse, and you will want to be the one to provide everything it needs. Taking on this responsibility is a lot, which is why you should only take on a horse if you have sufficient time and money to put into its care. If you choose to take on a horse, time and effort are more than necessary to provide the horse with a stimulating and enriching environment.
Read Next: How to bond with your horse without riding
How Visual Enrichment Helps Your Horse
Visual enrichment stimulates your horse or pony in different ways depending on the personality of your animal.
Mirrors are one example of visual enrichment. It is particularly interesting to watch the animals engage with the mirrors as many of them have different interactions:
- Some simply stare
- Some are curious
- Others might even be vocal
Toys Aren’t Just for Dogs and Cats
Horses also really enjoy playing with toys, such as large red balls. The color of the ball and the movement that they experience with it as it rolls and bounces work together to create a super fun time for the horse that gets them active. Using toys can also help horses interact, as playing is a very healthy form of interaction.
Play Hay Hide and Seek
Another way to visually stimulate them is by placing their hay in different paddock areas from day to day. This turns finding food into a game, and it also engages a few other senses, such as your horse’s sense of smell since it now has to find the hay in a new area. You can also use the ‘tiny haystacks‘ game for extra fun.
Summarising Visual Enrichment
Overall, the most common form of visual enrichment comes in the form of mirrors, as their own reflection easily entertains many horses. Other forms include toys such as large colorful balls and placing their hay in different areas so that they can go on an adventure.
Auditory Enrichment Affects Your Horse’s Mood
Horses and ponies are affected by music and auditory sensations. Music can be a great source of enrichment, and many studies have proved this to be true. For example, a study carried out at Hartpury College found that jazz and rock increased the display of more alert behaviours in horses. In contrast, jazz and more relaxing music encouraged the horses to display more restful behaviour. Smooth Jazz in particular is what is going to have the most calming effect for your horse, more upbeat jazz could be too energetic for your horse or pony.
Providing horses with music that helps them calm down is a great way to provide for your horse’s need for auditory enrichment. If you choose to do auditory enrichment, make sure that you choose music that will either calm down your horse or make them happy. It’s important to choose your music wisely so you don’t unintentionally give your horse unwanted feelings of anxiety or nervousness.
Music made specifically for horses has been proven to reduce stress and calm stereotypic behaviour. In addition, it also can help with the following:
- Barn Time
- Noise Phobia
- Thunderstorm Agitations
- Trail rides
- Transportation by Trailer
- Vet Visits
Overall, there are many benefits to audio enrichment, and it can help calm your horse down in a variety of situations. Audio enrichment will help you handle your horse or pony better and will help you build a trusting bond with your new family member.
What Food-Based Enrichment Means to a Horse
Horses and Ponies love when feeding time rolls around, and anything to make this experience as exciting as possible for them will suffice as food-based enrichment. Food-based enrichment involves the horse in more fun activities rather than having your pony simply staring at walls or engaging in other undesirable habits. A popular way to increase excitement during feeding time is by using feeding toys.
What are Feeding Toys?
Feeding toys provide more entertainment and stimulation during feeding time, making an overall better experience for your horse or pony. The point of the feeding toy is usually to dispense the food in a way that requires the horse to eat slower and play as they eat.
Making feeding toys is pretty easy as well. You will need a large plastic bottle into which you will poke holes and then hang it in your horse’s stall at head level. (You could really drill holes into any large plastic container. It just depends on what you have and what would work for your stall.)
Other food-based enrichment items could include:
- Allow your horse to bob for apples
- Hang carrots for your horse or pony to swing around before they eat them
- Scatter treats around your pasture or stalls for your horse or pony to find
Horses have the innate need to forage, so providing them with an activity that satisfies this foraging behaviour desire will be very beneficial for their food-based enrichment. On average, horses eat for about 16-18 hours per day and in nature have more than 50 types of grasses and herbs to forage. Obviously, this many varietal species would be a lot to have to furnish, but providing a few for your horse will be beneficial.
Food-based enrichment turns a seemingly boring activity of eating into something fun, stimulating, and it makes your horse excited to eat again. This can help horses get used to a new environment, eat on a schedule, and overall build the trust between you and your horse as they know you are the provider of a fun food experience.
How to Provide Environmental Enrichment for Your Horse
Environmental enrichment provides an environment for your horse or pony to thrive in and have optimal psychological and physiological health and well-being. Within environmental enrichment, there are two types: natural and behavioural.
Naturally Approaching Environmental Enrichment
When taking the natural approach to enrichment for your horse or pony, the goal is to make the animal feel it is back in its natural environment even though it is in a domesticated setting to encourage natural behaviours.
There are many ways to mimic the natural environment, such as:
- Providing a space inspired by nature
- Providing sources for foraging
- Providing water sources
- Overall creating a very natural environment
Using the Behavioural Approach
The behavioural approach to environmental enrichment is basically providing everything your horse or pony needs, but in an area that doesn’t look or work like a natural space. This means having:
- Devices for food
- Toys to play with
- Mirrors for visual stimulation
- Anything else to stimulate the equines’ senses
Both Approaches Work
Neither approach is seen as better than the other. The horse is being provided with everything it needs in order to thrive. The approach you choose will depend on the space you have available, as well as how you want your horses to be acclimated.
It is important to note that all horses have the innate need to forage. Having some form of stimulation to mimic this activity will be very beneficial for the environmental enrichment of your horse or pony.
The Importance of Physical Enrichment for Horses
Horses are animals that do not like to stay in one spot, and they are built to run and work their strong legs. Physical enrichment for horses means providing space for them to be able to run and exercise on their own, which they will do if they have adequate space. Horses also love to run with others, so having more than one horse is extremely beneficial for their physical enrichment since they are very social animals.
As ponies are smaller and don’t run as much, they don’t need as much space as you would provide for adult horses, but this doesn’t mean they don’t need a significant amount of space to be able to run and exercise.
If you have access to a paddock for your horses, that is the most ideal as far as space for them to run. If you don’t have as big of a space for your horses, you need to make sure that you are helping them get the physical exercise they need by providing activities such as going on trail rides.
Providing Structural Enrichment
During the colder seasons and colder nights, your horse or pony must have a structurally safe stall as an indoor shelter area. Structural enrichment is basically just providing them a safe space for when they cannot be outside.
The space provided must have access to heat, be structurally sound, and the horses need to be able to both eat and drink from their indoor quarters. Having privacy is important for a horse, which is what structural enrichment will also provide.
Structural enrichment could also mean making sure the horse has a stable home and they have a single place they are used to that they can think of as their home.
How to Provide Olfactory Enrichment For Your Horse
The olfactory system is your sense of smell. Through this, you can trigger certain emotions such as feeling happy, calm, stimulated, etc. The same is true for horses and ponies, and you can use certain scents to help train your horse or pony.
While a certain scent will suffice as a treat for training purposes, you are still able to use aromatherapy to bypass certain blocks you may have found difficult to overcome in your training routine. There are a lot of scents you can use that each does different things for your horses’ olfactory enrichment:
- Basil: Sharpens the mind and helps retain focus
- Bergamot: helps overcome stress of competition
- Chamomile: calms your horse down
- Eucalyptus: uplifting
- Frankincense: For the rider, it helps alleviate fears before a competition
- Geranium: balances hormones and moods for younger horses
- Lavender: minimizes heated altercations
- Lemongrass: helps retain learning
- Vetiver: helps ease your horse of sedatives
Making sure that you use these scents properly is very important. Usually, essential oils will be the easiest option for accessing these scents, but you need to make sure that you never apply undiluted oils to your horses or ponies’ skin. You can put the smell in your hand and let them develop their own interest, but make sure they don’t try to lick the oil off your hand.
How to Provide Cognitive Enrichment for your Horse
Cognitive enrichment for your horse is the means you use to get their brain working and solving problems. This is very healthy for their mental health and will help with training, as well as competitions, if that’s what you are planning on doing with your new equestrian lifestyle.
There are many forms of cognitive enrichment such as toys, hiding tasty treats, and allowing your horse to find them. Still, the most beneficial is actually puzzles that are created specifically for horses to solve.
Some puzzle options could be:
- Cutting a hole in an old container and placing food inside that they have to shake out
- Placing cones in the pasture and putting food under a couple of them so that your horse has to actively look for the food
Most puzzle options work well with vegetables cut into chunks, and you should be there to supervise your horse to make sure that they aren’t getting into any harm with the plastic items. You can find a video with more in-depth puzzle techniques and ideas here.
How to Provide Tactical Enrichment for Your Horse
Engaging your horses’ or ponies’ sense of touch is essential and actually quite simple to accomplish. Horses enjoy all kinds of sensations, and all you need to do as an owner is learn what they like and replicate that feeling for them.
An easy way for them to stimulate themselves is by removing the handle off of a broom and then attaching the bristle part of that broom to the wall to give your horse somewhere to scratch themselves. If you choose to do this, make sure the brush is at withers-level.
A couple of other easy forms of tactical enrichment include:
- Building your horse or pony a mound of dirt or mud to climb
- Providing a sandy patch to roll around in
- Setting up a sprinkler every now and then for them to cool off on hot spring and summer afternoons
- Try these pasture enrichment ideas to entertain your horse
Massaging your horse is another great way to give your horse or pony tactical enrichment. Massaging them helps calm them down, especially if they are timid or fearful. There are certain techniques, such as the Tellington TTouch®, which can be found here.
How to Provide Manipulative Enrichment For Your Horse
Manipulative enrichment means to place things in a horse’s environment that they need daily, but doing so with a twist so that it is more of a game or challenge for your equine. In their natural environment, horses orally manipulate things all the time. If you give the horse items that you don’t mind them manipulating, they will be less likely to damage something important to you.
Manipulating your horse to draw their attention away from possibly dismantling your watering system and well will prevent them from developing a bad problem such as weaving or cribbing. These are unwanted repetitive behaviours like swaying or walking back and forth.
Providing your horse with toys that they can manipulate on their own will draw their attention towards that object and not towards bad habits. This will allow your horse to manipulate their own environment in a healthy way and develop positive habits for the future.
How to Provide Social Enrichment for Your Horse
Horses are very social animals and thrive the most when they have other horses around for social interaction. In nature, horses are animals that live in herds, so when you transfer them to a domestic setting, the innate need for a herd is still present. While you don’t need an actual herd of horses to properly socialise your horse, you do need to make sure their social needs are filled.
The most important thing about your horses’ social interactions is that there should not be any conflict. You want to make sure the social interactions are positive, which can be achieved in many ways.
For your horse, the most important social interaction will be the one they have with you. If you cannot see your horse every day, make sure there is someone that can because human interaction with horses is extremely important.
The other type of interaction that will help your horse thrive is horse-to-horse interaction. Horses are a big companionship species, and they do act differently when they are with even one other horse. These actions include the amount of play they do, as well as foraging and eating during the day.
To properly fill social enrichment needs, your horse needs to have positive interactions with humans and preferably other horses every single day. It is a lot of attention, but they are the kind of animal that not only requires it but thrives off it.
The Importance of Human-Interaction Enrichment For Horses
Human interaction with your horse is essential as you need to build that important trusting bond with it, as well as train it to be comfortable around other people in addition to you.
Training your horse will help it trust you and show that you are in control. When you enrich your human interactions with your horse through positive reinforcement training, it’s very helpful to use a treat when your horse successfully learns something. It’s also good to teach your horse to target its nose. Using a target stick this way, you can move your horse without the need for rope or halters.
Taking your horse out is a great way to encourage human interaction too. Taking them on trail rides or club events where you can participate in events with your horse are great ways to allow your horse to see a new environment and interact with new people. Before taking your horse out, it’s important to train them well and make you know that they will react well to new people and places.
The Equicentral System Landscape for Pastures
When choosing a property design for your pasture, the Equicentral System will be the most beneficial for the overall enrichment of your horse or pony. In this system, there is a central area for loafing that is connected to multiple pastures. This setup allows your horses to have the freedom of choice about what they want to do and into which pasture they want to go.
The Equicentral System’s freedom allows horses to be social if they choose, and often times you will find horses and ponies loafing around together as it is very important to them. This allows the horse to socialize but also have their own private quarters for sleeping and relaxing.
Boredom-Busters for Your Horse
There are a lot of games and toys that were made specifically for horses that make it incredibly easy to provide enrichment for your horse. Some options for toy-based enrichment include the following:
- Nose-It toys are a slow-feeding tool with various uses to encourage movement, boredom relief as well as exercise
- Traffic cones for the horses to throw around and play with
- Jolly Tug 14″ Horse Enrichment Ball Toy, which can be played with by multiple horses
- Salt on a rope made from pure Himalayan salt
- Ruffle Snuffle’s Stable Pop horse ball feeder which can be stuffed with forage for grazing and good for horse on resticted diets ( like laminitis)
- Place a barrel in the enclosure
All of these toys and boredom-busters will help provide your horse or pony with an environment that will enrich all of their senses. They will also ensure that they don’t suffer from any form of boredom.
Safety Tips for Horse and Pony Enrichment
More important than anything, you want to make sure the enrichment you are providing for your horse or pony is stimulating and safe. Some important safety tips include:
- Hanging items with rope is dangerous as it can cause issues for the horse’s neck if hung too high, but if hung too low, it can get wrapped around their neck or leg.
- Being aware of plastic jug cut-outs that could potentially be sharp and cut your horse’s mouth or hide.
- Avoiding giving whole carrots or larger pieces of food that are easy for your horse or pony to choke on.
A very helpful tip is that if you choose to use rope, feed the rope through a PVC pipe to prevent any potential harm resulting from using the rope. Again, safety for your horse is the most important thing to think about when providing enrichment for your horse or pony.
Allow Your Horse to Be a Horse
The most important thing you can do for your horses is to allow them to be themselves and simply be a horse. Allowing them to have social interaction, foraging, and toys adds up to creating the essential enrichment that your horse needs to thrive.
As the main goal of enrichment is to provide the perfect environment for your horse, if your horse’s behaviour is happy and horse-like, you know that you are providing the right enrichment.
Horses and ponies are a lot of work, more work than most other pets we could have. The bond that you will create with your horse or pony is more than special and will be one of the most important relationships you have in your life. If you can provide an environment for your horses to thrive, their lives will be happy, and you will be fulfilled as you are the one making their lives happy.
There is a lot that is necessary when it comes to the enrichment of horses, and acquiring a new horse takes a significant amount of preparation. Before welcoming a new horse or pony to your family, it’s important to make sure that you have a space ready for them when they arrive. Settling into their new home might be an adjustment, but providing the necessary enrichment will make the process a bit easier.