Like all social creatures, horses like to play and need mental stimulation. Because they are intelligent creatures, horses can become bored when they lack a chance to play or release energy, and monotony is often the catalyst for negative behaviors such as cribbing or weaving. Even though they can be stall bound for part of the day, horses are very active animals, and running and rolling come naturally to them. It’s important for horse owners to be aware that they should provide games and toys for their horses, which encourages natural curiosity and play. We’ve put together a list of some of the best ways to ensure your horse is getting a good dose of mental stimulation, keeping them happy and healthy. Keep reading to find out:
- Why horses require play
- Top toys for engagement
- Fun games you can play with your horse
Horses Love to Play
In their DNA
Horses have always been herd animals, and being such, are very reliant on the bonds that they form among their fellow members. When in the wild, their herd is their family, their protection, and their source of fun. Play is a natural behavior among wild horses just as much as their domestic counterparts. There are a variety of reasons why horses play, which is why it is definitely an important part of your domestic horse’s life. The main factors are:
- Keeps them physically fit. In the wild, horses have predators, and their only line of defense is to outrun them. Horses play with each other to keep themselves fit and flexible-- because you never know when a dangerous situation may present itself.
- Practice skills. Wild horses often engage in play fighting, which enable them to learn and master the skills to fend off rivals in the future. Horses also like to play chasing games within their herd. This is a helpful way to learn escape strategies as well as how to elude potential predators.
- Building social bonds. Since horses are social animals, they tend to use play to strengthen bonds within their herd. This is especially important for young horses as it helps them develop social skills, similar to the way young children learn how to interact.
- Knowledge of the environment. Play also encourages horses to explore their surroundings and the objects in it. That way, they understand what is safe and what is not.
Horse play among horses can be rough by human standards, which is why this is only done between horses in a herd or who are stable-mates. When horses do not get the play and social interaction that they require, they can run the risk of developing negative behavior traits, which can be difficult to break.
Sometimes it’s not always feasible to have them run with other horses, but it is still important to ensure that they are engaged and mentally stimulated. There are plenty of games and fun toys you can pick up for solo play, as well as some ways to interact with your horse in a whole new way.
Horse play at its finest
Regardless of whether or not your horse is by themselves or a part of a large stable group, it’s always important to have a good selection of toys for them to enjoy and explore. Pick up any of these toys to keep the boredom at bay, and prevent any behaviors that horses can develop as a result of monotony.
Horsemen’s Pride Play Balls
Horsemen’s Pride has developed one of the most recognizable toys for horses-- and created a YouTube sensation in the process. Their mega balls are one of the most fun and interactive toys for horses to enjoy. The mega ball is 25 inches around and is similar to a thicker and more durable exercise ball. Horses love to play with this size ball in a large pasture or paddock-- as the tend to enjoy it while running around.
Pick this up for your horse and see boredom disappear! It’s just the right size for your horse to kick and bat around the yard, either nudging with their hooves or head. Some horses even get a kick out of rubbing against the ball or moving it along to a particular place. This type of high energy play is sure to keep your horse occupied and allows them to really enjoy themselves in a large pasture.
Horsemen’s Pride also makes a smaller version of their mega ball that is for stall use, and that’s the aptly labeled jolly ball. This toy comes with a handle on the top, which horses love to pick up with their mouth and throw around. This is a great accompaniment for their stall time, and you can either leave it on the ground or tie a rope around it and hang it from the ceiling or their door for some boredom breaking fun.
Stall Snack with Apple Scented Ball
Horses are natural foragers, and they’re always curious about new items in their pasture or stall. This item is sure to pique their curiosity, as it is scented with apple and horses have a hard time resisting it. This toy also doubles as a snack, and it is a great way to pass some time while in the stall. It easily hangs anywhere in the stall and is a fantastic way to prevent destructive behaviors like cribbing or pacing. It easily bounces around since it hangs freely, but once your horse is done with that, they can enjoy the delicious apple stall snack.
Pro tip: Consider wetting the stall snack block first, that way it will develop a crust as the treat starts to get a film over it. Horses can really smell that, and it is a good way to easily let them know this is for them!
This company offers a toy that can be mounted on the stall door, hung off the stall, or even placed on the ground, and it is guaranteed to keep your horse entertained while they’re in their stalls. The Bizzy Bites are mounted or hung and come with a delicious snack for your horse. The mint flavor and aroma encourages them to engage with and turn the ball as they lick it. It’s especially a good stall toy for those horses that are teething or who may have had a history of biting or chewing on their stall door.
Pro tip: These toys are long lasting, but even after your horse finishes the treat, the infused mint smell is specifically designed to keep them licking and engaged in a positive stall behavior.
In addition to pasture or stall toys, there are also some games that you can play with your horse. This not only makes the bond between horse and rider stronger, it also builds confidence in your horse and keeps them mentally fit. It also gives your horse some daily, positive feedback and encouragement, which can help with their work ethic.
Try your hand at teaching your horse some commands. This will take a lot of practice and patience, but it can be a really great team building exercise. A good command to start with is the “come” command. You will probably want to start with your horse on a lead for this one, until they get the hang of it. Decide on what type of body signal will mean the command (such as arm(s) in the air) and stick to it.
Then when you say the command, wait for your horse to take a step towards you. Always be sure to reward with a treat! When your horse is taking a few steps towards you at a time, you can begin to work without the lead. This type of training is fun for your horse to learn, and they’re definitely going to love the rewards. After the “come” command, consider learning to play follow the leader as well.
This is an extension of the command game, but it can prove to be very helpful when you happen to drop something while in the saddle! Start slow, and allow your horse to learn the command and the signal for “fetch.” After some training sessions-- complete with treat rewards-- your horse will be slowly learning to fetch. Once your horse gets pretty good at this game, see if they can find the objects for fetching when they’re slightly hidden or out of the way. It’s a great way to engage their curiosity and allow them to continue to explore new objects and situations.
This is a fun, quick game you can play anytime, and if your horse doesn’t love carrots, try apples instead! Try using these treats to give your horse’s neck and back a good stretch, all while having them engage in a game. Move the treat between their legs, or side to side, and encourage them to stand still while they move their neck. This game allows them to stretch out their muscles and learn a new way to play!
Horses are smart, playful animals that need to have mental stimulation. Toys and games are a great way to add a fun component to their day, and allow you to create a closer bond with your horse as well.