Any equine enthusiast can tell you that horses are intelligent animals who crave attention just like people. While horses generally tolerate solitude pretty well, that does’t mean they don’t get bored. Especially, horses kept in stalls or small paddocks.
Your horse certainly doesn’t need to be entertained every minute of the day. However, long bouts of boredom without relief can lead to some harmful outcomes, both physical and mental.
Luckily, there are some obvious signs that help you quickly tell if your horse is bored. Even better, there are also plenty of easy ways to solve the problem. Want to see how you can keep boredom at bay for your horse? Then let’s get started.
The dangers of horse boredom
It’s normal to have days of boredom, especially for a horse. After all, when you aren’t riding, training, feeding or grooming them, there is only so much entertainment a horse cares to enjoy. It’s not the occasional boredom that is concerning though.
Chronic boredom causes some serious mental and physical problems for any horse if left untreated. I have come across several new horse owners that weren’t convinced boredom was such a big deal for their horses. That is, until they understood the risks.
So what are the real dangers of horse boredom?
The resulting damage starts off slow. You’ll get a horse that is unmotivated and listless. Eventually, they start to exhibit frustration and even lash out in anger during training or riding (yikes!). At some point, the bad habits start. Extreme boredom encourages coprophagia (eating feces), cribbing and even self harm.
As time goes on and neglect continues (and yes, not addressing boredom is a form of neglect), horses kick stable gates, thrash their heads into walls or posts and exhibit signs of depression like turning in circles or swaying. At some point, digestive issues take hold due to disinterest in food or as a result of wood chewing or licking sandy stall floors.
The physical and mental dangers horses face as a result of boredom are real. Horses are intelligent animals and boredom should never be ignored.
Which horses are most likely to get bored
Not all horses experience boredom on such an extreme scale. But since you are here reading this article, I assume you have some concern. Only certain conditions are dull enough to drive a horse to madness. An awareness as to what those conditions are is the first step towards combating and preventing further problems.
Horses that spend a majority of their time alone in stables or small paddocks are the most prone to extreme boredom. Isolated stall life for a horse is significantly more boring than what their pasture grazing counterparts experience.
Lots of horses live out their existence confined to stalls. I understand completely that not everyone who owns a horse has space to keep one. And bear in mind, that most privately operated stables are awesome. They are run by owners and staff that loving care for horses in their charge and limit stall time as much as possible.
If that is not the case for your stalled horse, then be aware that it is your responsibility to provide your horse with what they need to stay healthy and free of boredom.
5 clear signs that your horse is bored
Now that you have a better understanding of risks associated with horse boredom, it’s time to learn the early symptoms bored horses exhibit. Some signs show up before others depending on your horse. But in either case, there are 5 clear signs that every horse owner needs to be aware of if boredom is a concern.
Sign #1: Unengaged or lethargic
Early stages of chronic boredom are subtle but easily recognized by observant owners or stable managers. Often, a bored horse shows signs of lethargy and an unengaged attitude towards training. You might describe it as listless.
Watch for a drooping head, swaying or both. Often, stall confined horses will face one corner of the stall and show little response to owners. Since this is the earliest sign in most cases, it is also the easiest to reverse.
Sign #2: Aggressive behavior
Aggression isn’t always the next step for a horse’s boredom induced decline but it is one you should take seriously. Mainly because you could get severely injured around an aggressive horse.
Every horse manifests aggression differently. It comes in the form of biting, jerking their head when harnessed or pushing you around with their body when you’re working with them.
Also watch for foot stomps that could catch your toes, and most dangerous of all, kicking. A short tempered horse that kicks when bored is especially scary.
Sign #3: Destructive behavior
Destructive behavior kind of goes hand in hand with aggression. The main difference being that inanimate objects are the focus of aggression as opposed to you. It should be very clear that your horse is deep into the realm of chronic boredom when he is kicking walls and swinging his body into fence rails.
Not only does destructive behavior result in property damage, your horse could end up getting hurt too.
Sign #4: Overly excitable
If you haven’t noticed any other signs of boredom yet, watch for an increase in anxious behavior. An overly excited horse is a sign that there is a great deal of pent up energy. Instead of following training cues, an anxious horse may rear, prance around nervously or pull away in response.
Overly excitable horses are tough to train, groom and care for. On top of that, they are a danger to you in tight spaces. Use caution when entering the stall with your horse if you sense any anxiety.
Sign #5: Developing bad habits
Generally, by the time your horse starts developing bad habits, he has been suffering from boredom for a long time. It’s not necessarily your fault though. It’s entirely possible that your horse showed no other signs of boredom.
The most common bad habits to watch for are cribbing, chewing on wood or eating excessive amounts of dirt. Now, eating dirt isn’t always bad or an indication of boredom, but it should be addressed. (Read this to find out why your horse is eating dirt.)
Bad habits are tough to break but not impossible. Cribbing is probably the most concerning. I suggest addressing even the slightest signs of boredom as soon as possible before you are stuck dealing with trying to correct a bad habit.
8 Proven ways to solve horse boredom
The good news for your horse is that boredom is a problem easily solved in most cases. You may need to experiment with different tactics depending on your horse’s personality and needs. Below are 8 proven ways to help a bored horse.
1. Increase turnout
For horses kept inside, increasing turnout is quite possibly all you need to do to eliminate boredom. Turing out your horse to pasture more often gives them time to graze and meander around a larger area. Grazing is what horses do naturally so it stands to reason that grazing will alleviate their boredom.
2. Give them more space
Space is freedom for a horse. They don’t need a ton of space to roam but anything more than a cramped stall or confined paddock is going to improve the mood of your horse. If you can, let your horse graze in a larger field. If you don’t have a large enough fenced area then at least use a lead rope and halter to take them for a walk. Stroll up and down your driveway or along a safe stretch of road and let them pick at grass along the way.
Everyone needs friends and a bored horse is a rare thing when there are companions around. Whether that is a goat, another horse or even some other barnyard animal for them to ponder, a companion is a powerful fix for boredom. (Check out my recent post to discover why companions for your horse are more important than you think.)
Not all of us have the space, time or money to provide a companion for our horse but it is worth considering. Don’t feel bad if you can’t get your horse a friend though. You are his companion too, so spend some time with him.
4. Provide constant grazing
You might like the idea of keeping your horse in the barn with occasional turnouts but horses prefer constant grazing. Even if that means spending all day out in the rain. When occasional turnouts aren’t curing obvious signs of boredom, afford your horse the opportunity to have unrestricted grazing for awhile. This might not help much during cold, snowy winters so other solutions will be needed during that time.
5. Hay feeders: balls and bags
So far, you’ve probably noticed that many of my suggested boredom fixes involve grazing. However, I completely understand that grazing space for every horse owner isn’t always possible. That is where special hay feeders come in. These stall feeders are about as close to grazing as a horse can get without leaving the stall.
Designs vary but some of the best are large enough to stuff with a partial flake of hay. The hay pokes out through small holes and keep a horse busy for hours while they fish out one small bite at a time. I don’t recommend doing your daily feeding this way though. Just use a ball or bag feeder as an in-between offering to engage your horse.
6. Stall toys
Even if your horse gets turnout time, some form of entertainment in their stall goes a long ways towards keeping boredom at bay. Things like Jolly Balls that hang from a rope in the stall give your horse something to nudge around. You can up the stimulation by getting a treat ball or carrot ball. The challenge of trying to coax out a few small treats is often enough to curb all boredom.
7. Spend time working with your horse
Horses are quite intelligent and mental stimulation is critical. Among the best boredom busting tools in your arsenal is training. Working with your horse not only engages their mind, it provides your companionship as well. Try groundwork exercises, lunging or liberty training. Better yet, try riding your horse as often as possible! Check out this article to relieve any concerns about riding frequency. If that is not doable, there are countless exercises you can do without ridding too.
Sometimes just your company is enough to squash the onset of boredom for your horse. Conversation between you two might be lacking but grooming certainly forms a strong bond between owner and horse. An hour of regular grooming kills two birds with one stone so to speak. It makes your horse’s day less boring and provides an import health benefit when done right. Even a simple brush down to remove dander and hair is enough to stimulate your horse’s mind.
A bored horse is an unhappy horse and we all want our horses to be as happy and healthy as possible. Our common goal of ensuring the best possible life for our horses should always involve keeping an eye out for signs of boredom. Hopefully, you now have more confidence in recognizing the signs of boredom your horse could exhibit and exactly how to solve it.