Battling Boredom: Study Proves Food-Related Items Most Successful

The old saying goes, "Idle hands are the devil's tools," but horse owners know an idle horse's lips can cause just as much mischief. For many owners it can be a daily challenge to keep curious horses occupied when not being ridden or handled. In her recent study, Grete Helen Meisfjord Jørgensen, PhD, of the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research, observed horses' reactions to several types of "enrichment items" and determined that food-related items helped battle boredom best.

Jørgensen and her team observed the reactions of eight horses rotated through eight individual paddocks that each contained a different enrichment item (a cone, a ball, a pole, peat, straw, branches, a ball filled with concentrate, and an empty paddock used as a control). Among the most popular items were the straw, the concentrate-filled ball, the branches, and the scratching pole.

The researchers then observed six groups of horses (three to six horses in a group) that were offered the four items that appeared to be most popular to the individual horses. The researchers observed that whether alone or in groups, the enrichment items horses liked best involved food.

"Our data show that edible items were most popular," Jørgensen explained. "Other toys were seldom investigated, and no horses spent a lot of time playing with the objects that did not have any relationship to food."

The notable exception was the scratching post, which was investigated more by the horses when they were alone in a paddock rather than in a group. She said that this was likely because the post allowed them to reach certain itchy spots on their bodies they couldn't reach without the help of a herdmate.

When providing enrichments for groups, make sure there is enough for everyone, Jørgensen cautioned: "The study showed that providing several piles of roughage (like straw) might reduce the amount of aggressive interactions--an effect that most horse owners would cherish. The fear of injuries is often the main reason that owners choose to keep their horses individually rather than give them social contact with other horses."

She added that for horses that can be managed on pasture, simple green grass is the best enrichment item they can be offered.

"One of the most important findings from our study is the great motivation that horses have for eating green grass," she said. "Even if our test paddocks had only a few green plants growing on the surface and horses were using the paddocks every day, they spent large amounts of time nibbling on this grass."

The study, "Effects of enrichment items on activity and social interactions in domestic horses (Equus caballus)," was published in January in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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