Providing Environmental Enrichment to Improve Horse Welfare

By Emily Kieson, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee member

Horses who live in conditions where routines remain excessively predictable may not be getting enough psychological stimulus which can affect how they respond to us, the environment, and our participants. Many horses are often individually-housed, have very sterile living spaces, and lack variety in environmental conditions. Creating variety in living environments could provide them with opportunities to explore, solve problems, and engage with their surroundings which can reduce stress and associated behaviors by improving psychological welfare.

Environmental enrichment can include more social contact with other horses, but it can also include the creation of more options for free choice of movement, introduction to new toys, obstacles, or even creating new environments with novel footing. Essentially, environmental enrichment opens up opportunities for our horses to learn and problem solve on their own. Most of us want our horses to be able to navigate uncertainties during classes and we can provide them with practice by including some variety and play in their daily life.

The key to providing the best enrichment is knowing the individual motivations for the individual horse and providing outlets for that horse to express the desired behavior (Bulens, Van Beirendonck, Van Thielen, & Driessen, 2013; Mason, Clubb, Latham, & Vickery, 2007). This, of course, may take some trial and error which may take some time, but none of it needs to include any additional costs. A lot of horses seem to be content for a majority of the time if they have enough grass or hay to browse upon and they are still within sight of their favored horse companions (Thorne, Goodwin, Kennedy, Davidson, & Harris, 2005). However, too much standing, weaving, pacing, or other stereotypies can be markers for stress (Mason et al., 2007) so more measures should be taken to help horses find behavioral outlets.

Knowing the individual preference of a horse can help. Young horses, some geldings, and stallions, often show the need to play or release excess energy and providing options can help reduce stress. Most studies indicate that a simple, handmade toy (e.g. a sand-filled plastic bottle on a rope) provides some outlet for horses when hay is not available (Bulens et al., 2013). For horses that are social, spending free, unstructured time with favored horse friends, allowing to freely explore new places, or creating unstructured time for horses to explore new objects in open spaces can also provide options for environmental enrichment.

Keep in mind, though, that, aside from social interactions which are best if they involve a consistent partner with whom the horse has built trust, environmental enrichment involves constant change. Enrichment is only helpful if the item or approach is novel. Since novelty wears off as a horse becomes desensitized to something, it is important to regularly change out toys and novel objects. This can be simple if you are allowing your horse free time in an arena and create new obstacles with existing equipment that the horse has never seen before. Try arranging pool noodles like teepees, creating odd arrangements of standards and jumps, or tying plastic bags (or feed sacks) to known objects in new ways that allow for new options in exploration, curiosity, and play. Overall, whether your barn is planning on creating a paddock paradise (track system) or if you simply want to create new opportunities for your horses to express and explore, establishing programs for environmental enrichment can help support your horses’ psychological welfare and allow them to become the best partners for us and our programs.


Bulens, A., Van Beirendonck, S., Van Thielen, J., & Driessen, B. (2013). The enriching effect of non-commercial items in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 143(1).

Mason, G., Clubb, R., Latham, N., & Vickery, S. (2007). Why and how should we use environmental enrichment to tackle stereotypic behaviour? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 102(3–4), 163–188.

Thorne, J. B., Goodwin, D., Kennedy, M. J., Davidson, H. P. B., & Harris, P. (2005). Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: Practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 94(1–2), 149–164.

Author Bio:

Emily Kieson has a PhD in Comparative Psychology and actively researchers equine behavioral psychology and horse-human interactions with the Swedish non-profit Mimer Centre. She is certified as an ESMHL and serves on the PATH Equine Welfare Committee.



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