Having a horse on stall (or box) rest is something that every horse owner dreads, not least because the lack of exercise, loneliness, stress, and boredom can lead to a multitude of problems and vices such as weaving, box walking, windsucking, and crib-biting. It can also lead to a horse being anxious and generally unhappy, but if your horse is on stall rest for a prolonged period of time he can also suffer from muscle wastage.
Yet we know that it’s in our horse’s best interest and that there is no real alternative so you’ve just got to accept it and help your horse through it but it doesn’t have to be a slog. We all know about the obvious things such as making sure your horse can see other horses and stabling him near the feed store but what do you do if neither of these are possible? Over the years I’ve had to deal with horses on stall rest more times than I would like, but at the same time, I’ve learned a few surprising things to help you and your horse deal with it which is why I thought I’d write this article.
What is stall rest?
Stall rest is a general term used to describe a horse that, for whatever reason, has been confined to a stable or stall for a period of time. It can be just for a few days or many months but the type of stall rest can vary too. If your horse is recovering from an injury or from surgery then it’s likely that he’ll need to be completely confined to his stall and kept quiet. Whereas if your horse needs to be quarantined for whatever reason then he may be allowed outside briefly to graze on his own in a paddock.
How to stop your horse from being bored while on stall rest
We all know that the key to reducing your horse’s boredom while he’s resting is to keep him as busy and occupied as possible. Whether you’re giving him things to play with, increasing the amount of time he spends eating, or giving him the option to interact with other horses, it can all make a difference. Below are some unusual ways I’ve found that really do work to reduce (and even prevent) boredom on stall rest horses.
Horse safe mirror
If you have to keep your horse away from other horses, or if you’re just not able to stable him near other horses, a horse safe mirror is an excellent alternative. You can either buy a plastic mirror or sticky mirror sheets on Amazon, but either way, they’ll really help to reduce your horse’s boredom.
Horses aren’t self-aware so will see the ‘other’ horse in the mirror, see that it looks and acts like a horse so will think it’s another horse and therefore won’t feel so lonely. The presence of another horse will also help to keep him occupied as he ‘interacts’ with the other horse.
The only caveat I would add though is don’t place the mirror too close to your horse’s feed, especially if he’s protective over his food. Doing so will probably result in your horse trying to fight himself for the feed and, as a result, will increase his stress.
Multiple hay rations
The fiber in hay is even more important while he’s on stall rest but when he’s confined to his stall you’ll probably find that he eats the hay far quicker than normal, but you can very easily increase the amount of time he spends eating his hay.
It doesn’t matter if you give hay in haynets or place it on the floor (or even use a feeder) simply divide the hay into equal groups and, in the case of haynets or ground feeding, place them in different areas of the stall. If you use a feeder for hay though you can place some of the hay into the feeder and the rest into a couple of buckets and place those around the stall.
If you’d prefer to feed the hay in one place but still want to increase the amount of time your horse spends eating without feeding him more you can either put the haynet inside another one to reduce the amount your horse takes in one go. Or you can use a haulage net, made my Shires, the Greedy Feeder net (available on Amazon) has much smaller holes and is designed to help greedy horses eat slower.
We all know the benefits that music can have on us and on our mood but research carried about by Linda Greening at Hartpury University in England has shown that the same can also be true for our four-legged friends. Different music styles can have different effects on a horse’s state and Linda discovered that both country and classical music can have a restful effect on horses. You can read more about her findings here.
As well as having a calming effect on horses, playing music during the day can help to reduce your horse’s boredom. You might not think playing music can do that but your horse will be interested in the sound and, while he’s listening to it, he won’t be preoccupied with the fact that he’s got nothing to do. As an added bonus, playing music will also give your horse the impression that there are other people around which will help to stop him from feeling stressed and lonely.
Use an old soccer ball
If you have an old, partially deflated, soccer ball lying around it can make a great toy for your horse. Simply leave the ball in your horse’s stall and watch his reaction to it, some horses won’t want to play with it but if your horse does he’ll soon start nuzzling it and moving it around the ground. If your horse doesn’t want to play with the ball though don’t leave it with him otherwise he could end up getting frustrated.
Important: Leather balls are better because they’re able to withstand your horse’s teeth more. There’s always the risk that a plastic ball could break and your horse could end up swallowing some of it and then choking.
Hide treats around the stall
Horses have a natural instinct to forage, their digestive system is designed for them to do that but foraging can also help to reduce your horse’s stress and keep him occupied. You can use this to your advantage by hiding apples, carrots, or even grapes around his stall and under his bedding. His keen sense of smell will alert him to the fact that there’s food there so he’ll start hunting for it.
Horses are able to eat a wide range of fruits so you could experiment with different things to find out what his favorite is or if you’d prefer, you could use low-calorie treat balls instead. Whatever you use the key is to hide it so your horse has to find it.
Just because it’s not Halloween it doesn’t mean your horse can’t go apple bobbing! I’ve yet to find a horse that doesn’t like apples so this seasonal game will help to entertain them for a lot longer than you think. By adding a few uncut apples to your horse’s water he’ll have to work out how to get them out in order to eat them. Some horses will drink the water to get to the apples but this isn’t a bad thing because you need to make sure they have plenty to drink (to help with their digestion) while they’re on stall rest.
Hang a rutabaga
There are plenty of toys on the market that are designed to reduce boredom and can act as a distraction. The idea is that you hang them near the door and your horse plays with them instead of developing vices such as cribbing or weaving. While these can be very good I prefer to hang a large rutabaga up instead, as well as being an interesting ‘toy’ to play with it can also double up as a tasty treat.
If you’d prefer to use a purpose bought toy instead of a vegetable then something like Uncle Jimmy’s Hangin’ Balls (available on Amazon) is a better alternative to plastic toys, they’re better at holding your horse’s attention and they also provide him with a good balance of vitamins and minerals.
Add fruit to your horse’s feed
Okay, I admit this isn’t so much of a boredom buster but when horses are on stall rest they can lose interest in their food so it’s important to make sure they do eat, also eating will help to pass the time (okay so maybe it does help to reduce boredom). Keeping your horse interested in his food can be difficult but if you cut the fruit up and put it in his food it’ll help to keep him eating.
Spend time grooming your horse
Just because your horse isn’t turned out and isn’t getting hot and sweaty it doesn’t mean that he won’t benefit from being groomed. The time you spend grooming him will have a very positive benefit on his mental wellbeing as well as helping to reduce his boredom, as an added bonus it’ll help the two of you bond as well.
Within the herd, horses groom each other for a variety of reasons, one of which is to reduce stress and help to keep each other relaxed (I know that’s two reasons but they kinda go together). So if you spend time doing that to your horse will he’s on stall rest he’ll thoroughly enjoy it as well as benefiting psychologically too.
Massage your horse
Even if you don’t have any formal equine or animal massage training you can still massage your horse with a rubber jelly massager (available on Amazon). It’s a double-sided glove that has a rubberized curry comb on one side and stainless steel beads on the other that allow you to gently massage your horse with ease.
While your horse is on stall rest, especially if it’s for a prolonged period of time he will suffer from some muscle wastage but massaging them will not only help to relax him but will also improve the circulation, helping to stimulate the muscles and therefore reducing their wastage.
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Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.