By Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant as published on The Horse
What do horses value, need, and desire most? Friends, forage, and freedom, of course!1 Most horses have access to a warm blanket and clean stall, but stable management practices can restrict how much time a horse spends with other horses, how often and what type of food they eat, how much freedom they move about, and the activities in which they participate. Below are a few fun Valentine’s Day gift ideas that will help your horse meet her need for friends, forage, and freedom.
Friends—The “Perfect Date” Package
Horses are highly social and generally drawn to other horses. One gift suggestion is to set up the perfect date for your horse with an equine friend. If the date is with a familiar friend, they can be turned out together in a pasture or arena to socialize, and to spend time mutually grooming, playing, or simply grazing side-by-side. If the date is with a new equine acquaintance, to be safe, they should greet each other over a gate or barrier. Exercise caution when first introducing any horses and watch their body language carefully; some horses might kick, strike out, or bite. If your horse has not been properly socialized, or if meeting-up with another horse isn’t possible, then spending quality time with a trusted human friend would be a perfect backup date.
Forage—A “Be Mine” Fruit ‘N’ Feed Bowl
Most healthy horses love to eat! February 14 is also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine, so express your love with the gift of grub. Many stabled horses are fed a narrow diet on a fixed schedule, but under natural free-ranging conditions, horses consume a varied diet and will graze for up to 20 hours a day. A slow-feed haynet is a gift that will stretch-out your horse’s feeding time and has lasting value.
Most horses also appreciate a tasty treat from time to time. They prefer nutritious, sweet-tasting feed, and tend to choose coconut and banana flavors over cinnamon and spearmint.2 Anyone with basic kitchen skills could whip up something special for an equine valentine, such as heart-shaped oat, molasses, and banana biscuits, or a “Be Mine” fruit ‘n’ feed bowl. To prepare the bowl, start with your horse’s regular feed or hay cubes, then mix in sliced bananas, apples, carrots, and strawberries—the distinctive Valentine’s Day ingredient. These treat recipes can be easily modified to meet dietary restrictions.
Freedom—The “Choose Your Activity” Gameboard
Freedom means being able to move without restraint or confinement, as well as having choice about how to spend time in different activities.3 A Valentine’s Day gift any horse would appreciate is extra turnout time, with an at-liberty to run, romp, and roll. Working horses might be especially grateful for the gift of freedom, since certain jobs can be a source of stress.4
For Valentine’s Day, I gave my horse a “Choose Your Activity” gameboard. The idea came from a scientific study in which horses learned to approach and touch symbols on a board to communicate their preference for wearing a blanket, or not; horses were more likely to choose to wear a blanket during cold, wet and windy weather.5 Using the same approach, my horse is learning to choose an activity by touching one of the symbol options. Learning to use the gameboard can take several weeks, but the positive reinforcement training is itself an enjoyable exercise. Activity symbols for “massage” and “carrot-stretches” are on my horse’s gameboard—what does your horse like to do?
If your current boarding facility doesn’t allow ad libitum access to friends, forage, and freedom, consider how you can give your horse the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift: Talk to you barn owner about making management practice changes, or even relocate to a different facility. However, if you’re already satisfied that your horse’s needs are met, why not open your heart and give back on Valentine’s Day by spending time a local equine rescue and sharing your love with horses in need?