Friday, 6 November 2009


We all want our horses to develop with us, we want their brains to be sharp enough to take on all that we teach them. But is our management affecting the effectiveness of our training?

Much research has been done looking at the horses brain, how it develops and how horses learn. The circuits within their brain need to be stimulated in a positive way, they need to explore their environment, learn and develop every day.

But do our management practices impose in the development of our horses?

In an unrestricted environment, our horses would be ....
  • Grazing a variety of herbage and browsing and foraging for around 18 hours per 24 hour period.
  • Grooming and being groomed, with other horses on and off for 24 hours a day.
  • Playing with objects and other horses on and off for 24 hours a day.
  • Exploring their environment to learn and adapt to all that is around, throughout the 24 hour period.
  • With regards to sleeping behaviour, for the adult horse, studies have found that they will choose to be fully awake for around 20 hours out of each 24 hour period. The 4 hours remaining largely constitutes drowsing periods, with this prey species alert, only fully sleeping for around 2 hours, broken up into periods of sleeping for minutes at a time.

To Put This Into Practical Terms
Here is one example of a typical yard routine ...
7am hard feed in morning
9am turned out to graze
5pm returned to yard, groomed and ridden
6pm stabled overnight
7pm hard feed and haynet with 2/3 sections

What Does This Mean?
10 ½ hrs eating (15 min am feed/8hrs grazing/15 min pm feed, hay lasts max. 2 hrs)
20 mins grooming, tacking up
40 mins exercise

and then sleeping…
only 4 hours spent sleeping and drowsing on and off.... this accounts for 15 ½ hours – but there are 8 ½ hours with the horse in a stable with nothing to do.

Many researchers, across all species, have noted that when not stimulated, the brain does not develop as well as it should. if your horses brain is not as well developed as it could be, you will not be able to achieve as much as you would be able to.

So What Can We Do
The simple answer is turnout, as much as you can, if possible with other horses. There are Barn Management Systems that can be implemented to allow even the finest TB to be allowed 24 access to turnout throughout the winter months.

However we all know that sometimes this is not an option, and in that case there are some really simple enrichment ideas that can be brought into the stable, encouraging exploration and brain development. Here are a few to get you started...
  • Hang ‘kebabs’, throw carrots in loose hay and provide Swedes for exploration.
  • Hang branches in a corner of the stable. Add licks, carrots, slices of apple.
  • Allow companion horse to live next door.
  • Attach a door mat to the stable walls to enable self-grooming maintenance.
  • Provide different varieties of hay and herbage, scattered loose on the floor.
  • Produce a new variety of vegetable for each day of the week.
  • Scatter feeds as well as hay piles on the floor, amongst carrots and more
  • Explore a range of treats and lick-its

McDonnell, S. (2003) A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behaviour: The Equid Ethogram, The Blood Horse Inc., United States
Pavlov, I. P. (1927-1960) Conditional Reflexes, Dover Publications, New York
Rees, L. (1984) The Horse’s Mind, Stanley Paul Ltd., United Kingdom

Katie B Wade is a fully qualified and experienced animal behaviourist, working alongside veterinary clinics, rescue centres, societies, breeders as well as individual owners to assist with various aspects of animal behaviour and training. With professional experience handling, training, breeding and rehabilitating the competition horse, Katie went on to study a degree in Psychology and then on to specialise in Equine Behaviour with The Natural Animal Centre. Katie provides scientifically sound advice to the general public, building a bridge between academic research and practical horse ownership.

Katie B Wade

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