Importance of Mental Stimulation
Horses are intelligent and social creatures. As such, they require more than just physical neccessities (e.g. food & shelter) but also require company and mental stimulation. Failure to provide these will affect the horse's mental and emotional health. In turn, this will eventually result in the development of behavioral issues (bad habits) which can be destructive to their surroundings (e.g. wood chewing), their health (e.g. cribbing) and their riding performance (e.g. disobediance).
In its natural environement, a horse is a forager, not a grazer. The difference is that a grazer has evolved (or been bred) for high quality pasture and simply eats, whereas a forager has evolved in variable quality grassland so they spend much of their time looking for the most juicy and nutritious plants. A horse in such an environment will spend most of its time (up to 16 hours per day) looking for food and eating food (typical forager behaviour). These two activities provide most of its mental occupation and stimulation.
The modern feeding regime for horses greatly reduces both the time and the mental challenge associated with food:
- Pasture Feeding. This is the best choice for your horse as it provides substantial occupation. Modern pastures have more uniform plant life than natural pastures, due to the way in which they are maintained and fertilized, so the amount of foraging is less than ideal but it is the closest that the modern horse gets to its natural environment. It also provides a certain amount of exercise, which is also beneficial to the horse's health.
- Hay. Natural foraging involves two activities, one is hunting for food and the other is eating. Hay-fed horses have their food handed to them, so the stimulation associated with looking for food is completely eliminated. Furthermore, a horse can eat enough hay for its daily food requirements in a relatively short time (much shorter than pasture-grass fed), which eliminates much of the stimulation associated with eating. Consequently, hay is very inferior to pasture in terms of occupying and stimulating a horse.
- Grain, Musli, Mash, Pellets. All these foods suffer from the same problem as hay in that there is no food searching involved. However, they are worse than hay in that they involve almost no chewing and in that they are eaten in a much shorter period of time.
Consequently, from the perspective of mental health, one should aim for pasture feeding whenever possible, and when one cannot do this one should try for chewy foods such as hay. If you feed your horse (as opposed to pasture), then feeding multiple small meals rather than one large meal is better for its mental health, as well as reducing digestive disorders such as colic.
Of course, one may need to use the other types of foods for other considerations. For example, an older horse with dental issues may be unable to eat hay and may even be unable to eat grass. Consequently, they may need to be fed musli or similar foods simply to maintain their weight. Likewise, especially during the winter, one may need to supplement pasture and hay feed with grain feeding (especially for weak, sick or old horses). In such cases, one must accept the physical realities and try to compensate by providing alternative forms of stimulation.
Horses are herd animals and as such are happy only when part of a herd. In some cases, they will accept other herbivores (e.g. sheep) as companion animals. However, a horse needs at least one other companion animal. Periodic human company is no substitute for this.
Large herds have more complex social dynamics than small ones, so a larger herd will provide more stimulation than a smaller one. Unfortunately, in most cases a large herd is not a practical option and in any case it poses more management issues (e.g. some horses bullying others). However, even a couple of other horses (or acceptable alternative companion animals) will make a huge difference to a horse. In additional to the mental benefits, group animals tend to be much more physically active than solitary ones, which has physical health benefits as well.
The design of the stables can also be done to allow social interaction. For example, stall walls which are low enough that the horses can see each other and even touch noses. Likewise, stall doors that allow the horses to stick their heads out and see each other.
Exercise is not only good for the horse's physical health but also a good source of mental stimulation. This is true for both natural exercise (e.g. running about on a pasture) and training exercise (e.g. ring work, riding). The benefit of exercise in preventing and reducing the development of boredom-related behavioral problems (such as wood chewing) is noted in a study by the Illinois University Department of Animal Science (published in the Journal of Animal Science, volume 69).
Space in itself provides more opportunities for mental stimulation, even if simply through movement. A large box is better than a small one, as is a large paddock and a large pasture. The importance of these is proportional to the amount of time the horse spends in each; a horse which spends much of its time in a box deserves a large one whereas a horse which has free access to pasture and only enters its box to sleep or for occassional shelter has less need.
Other Forms Stimulation
Anything which provides variety will contribute to the mental stimulation that a horse receives. The most important factors are things like food, pasture and company. However, grooming and other interactions with people can be useful contributions. There are a number of horse toys on the market, which one supposes could be of benefit if the horse takes an interest in them, although we have no personal experience in this regard. Even the sounds of a radio (outside of the horse's reach) may be of some benefit for horses which spend much of their day boxed in.
Although horses like variety, they dislike change and frequently find change stressful. For example, being part of a herd with several other horses gives variety but changing which horses are in the herd causes stress. Likewise, being taken for a ride each day by the same person can add interest to the daily routine but being riden each day by a different person (with different riding styles) can be stressful for some horses. Since stress can lead to both physical and behavioral problems, one needs to build variety into their daily activities and routine rather than making frequent stressful changes to their daily routine.