How Does Confinement Affect Your Horse?
Dealing with Confinement – by Pat Parelli
Horses are born skeptics, cowards, panic-aholics and claustrophobics by nature to varying degrees. When considering the subject of confinement for prey animals, you must take into account each horse’s individual Horsenalityâ„¢, which is based on a combination of innate characteristics, learned behavior, environment and spirit. Horses are a precocial species, meaning they are full-faculty learners from birth. They have fully developed brains, so their ability to learn is hugely accelerated at an early age.
Here’s my point concerning horses living in confinement: I have seen horses that are used to being confined at early age””they were born in a mare motel and moved immediately into a box stall””so that’s all they know. Just as some city folks might think being in the country is a scary thing and country folk might think being in the city is scary, horses fear the unknown. The environmental influences””what they’ve known from birth””are what they’re going to be comfortable with. So before we make living in a box stall into the monster, let me just say, “It all depends . . .”
As I think about confinement with horses, I try to adjust to fit the situation and take everything into consideration””what has been this horse’s experience, what’s his spirit level, what are the chances of him settling in and being calm””and I do that with the highest degree of integrity. I want to be sure I’ve really prepared the horse for being left alone in the stall or anything similar.
Remember that horses, being prey animals, are herd animals, and they base a large part of their sense of safety upon being with the herd, whatever that herd consists of. I’ve seen racehorses provided with a placebo herd mate like a goat, a chicken, a dog; I’ve even seen a groom live in a stall near a nervous horse, and the horse will bond with him. As herd animals, horses bond as a matter of survival and need to know where their safety partner is.
It’s been proven over the years that horses living in tie stalls had fewer stall vices than horses living in 12 x 12 box stalls. Dr. Robert Miller speculated that the difference was that in tie stalls the horses were all facing the same direction as they would in a herd, whereas in box stalls the horses were free to move about and face different directions””this one facing north, another one west. Horses are so sensitive that it will bother some of them. They lose their polarity; they aren’t sure which direction they should be facing in case of attack. In many ways they are like a school of fish. Next time you watch a National Geographic or Animal Planet program featuring fish, take note of this and realize that much of what you are seeing also applies to horses!
Along with providing a herd mate of some kind, we can increase the amount of undemanding time we dedicate to our horse. Hanging out and getting a good scratch are extremely comforting. Remember that a horse not accustomed to confinement might change his behavior; nervousness and claustrophobia can turn a horse right-brained quickly. Alternate undemanding time with a little horseplay””ten minutes spent improving your Porcupine Game by asking your horse to put just one foot here and then there can keep your horse relaxed by keeping his mind engaged. Meals can be smaller and more frequent, or you can have good grass hay always available. You’ll probably want to cut down on grain if your horse has been accustomed to more activity.
If a horse is being confined for medical reasons but you can still take him for walks, be sure the walk is interesting. Use the Seven Games to give his mind and his feet a job””speed up, slow down, stop, back up, go sideways. Of course, health issues (if lameness is involved) dictate how much your horse can do.
If I’m bringing a horse into confinement, I generally use a process of progressive confidence building. I’ll bring along one of his pasture mates and put the two in stalls or corrals next to each other. Over a period of a few days I’ll slowly move one about a stall away, then two, and so on. If I have a horse that is accustomed to living in confinement and I’m moving him out to pasture, I’ll do the reverse: place a future herd mate several stalls away and slowly move them closer together until they can comfortably be next to each other. Watch for your horse’s reaction to the change in his environment and make adjustments to keep him comfortable. The most important point to remember with horses is: It all depends.
In closing, remember that horses are herd animals, and they pair-bond strongly with one another. When you separate and confine a horse, the potential for emotional duress is high, so your horse really needs you to give him what he’s missing””the bond, the social interaction, the play and the exercise””mentally, emotionally and physically speaking. The Seven Games and Parelli Patterns are ideal for this.
Your horse needs to get out every day (unless he is injured, of course), and this is your responsibility. You have to do it or make sure you can entrust someone you board with to do it. As his partner, you have the responsibility to care for his mental health and well-being in every way you can.