Written by: Antonia Henderson, PhD.

Equine psychologist Antonia Henderson examines the psychological impact for horses on lengthy stall rest, and what can be done to reduce the stress level and even turn the “sentence” into something beneficial.

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The diagnostic machines have been moved aside. The vet, trainer and owner are gathered around the horse, all eyes focused on the offending limb. The verdict has been decreed – two months’ stall rest. Anyone who has owned horses has undoubtedly witnessed or experienced this depressing scenario. In this article, I will outline the psychological impact for horses on stall rest, what can be done to ameliorate their psychological distress, and discuss positive reinforcement training to turn the stall rest sentence into something bearable, and even beneficial.

The Psychological Toll of Confinement

Horses have been evolutionarily designed to move, foraging in herds over vast and sparse grazing territories to gain their nutritional requirements. Our modern-day management practices already challenge this drive for movement; so when an injured horse is confined to stall rest, we run the risk of exhausting our horse’s ability to cope with human-centred management practices.

Horses are even less suited to solitary confinement. A horse’s need for affiliation is woven into its genetic fabric, having evolved to form life-long social bonds with herdmates. Horses that are separated from other horses can often manage with human interaction as a second-best. Stall-bound horses are habitually cut off from equine contact, which is compounded by the subsequent diminishment of human contact.

Fortunately, there are management practices that can alleviate some of this psychological distress when needs for movement and affiliation have been thwarted.

Visiting Hours

The confinement stall should be chosen strategically in a way that complements the stall-bound horse’s particular disposition. Research suggests that most confined horses prefer to be in high-traffic areas where there is more equine activity. Ensuring that the confined horse is never left alone in the stable will also reduce his distress.

Although visual contact is essential, tactile contact is better still. This can be achieved through relatively inexpensive, or more permanent, stall modifications. These modifications improve psychological well-being for any horse that spends a part of the day in a stall, and thus permanent alterations may be well worth the investment. One clever design option I have seen is to outfit stalls with a 2’x3′ window cut into one shared stall wall, placed about 5′ from the floor, fitted with metal grills. This allowed for safe neighbour visiting on one side, with the option to refrain from socializing if so desired. Stall guards may afford a less expensive alternative for tactile contact, although this may need some adaptation if the interaction becomes too boisterous for the resting patient.

A Room With a View

Stall guards have the added benefit of expanding the horse’s visual horizons. Research by Jonathan Cooper and colleagues, studying a sample of chronic weavers, cribbers and head-nodders, found that these stereotypies were significantly decreased when horses were housed in an open design. These established stereotypies were further reduced when horses were afforded the opportunity to view or socially interact with neighbouring horses.

Providing a double stall where possible may work in a similar fashion. Rather than increasing activity, the greater room afforded by a double stall decreases the horse’s sense of confinement. I witnessed one stall-bound horse in a double stall fitted with a stall guard on one of the open stall doors. By the second week, the horse had begun kicking the second closed door. The kicking ceased entirely when the clever, horse-centric staff replaced the second door with another stall guard, providing the horse with an additional viewing opportunity.

Imaginary Friends

Installing a mirror is another way to break up the tedium of stall rest. This can be particularly useful when tactile contact with another horse is not possible – such as horses in quarantine. Mirrors have been shown to be effective in reducing or eliminating stereotypies in chronic weavers, cribbers, and stall-walkers (McAffee et al., 2002), and maintain their desirable effect over time. It is not clear whether the mirror extends the horse’s visual field and thereby reduces feelings of confinement, or whether the horse believes he has company. In any case, safe acrylic mirrors are readily available, easy to install, and may alleviate a horse’s sense of entrapment.

Taking the Hospital Bed Outside

Creating a stall-size paddock, with commercial metal fencing, allows the injured horse his regular turnout routine while preventing him from becoming too active. A tranquilizer may be recommended for initial turnouts until the horse becomes accustomed to the new arrangement. At our facility, we have three such paddocks of varying sizes created from the stall fronts of portable stalls. The stall fronts, open along the upper portion, allow for visual and tactile contact with neighbours in attached paddocks. Horses can graduate to the next paddock size as their rehab progresses. Footing is also modified to the horses’ needs; with a crusher dust base, a deep bed of shavings can be added to afford softer footing.

Hospital Cuisine

Although horses on stall rest have significantly reduced caloric requirements, restricting their feed leaves them with hours in the stall with nothing to do. Hay with a higher roughage content is less fattening, and less palatable, which tends to make it last longer. There are also a number of slow feeders on the market such as hay nets with smaller holes, rolling food balls, etc. The slow hay feeders that sit on the ground with narrow slats for smaller bites allow for a more natural head position than hay nets, and more closely mimic grazing.

The Confinement Program

Although it is tempting to forget about a broken horse until it is mended, a stall-bound horse requires more attention than a working horse because so many of his natural tendencies are being frustrated. Creating a daily interactive program for a horse on stall rest is an integral part of his recovery. Depending on how much movement is permitted, taking the horse out of the stall for daily grooming provides a welcome respite. Research has found grooming, particularly around the withers, reduces heart rate and lowers physiological stress responses. Hand-grazing may also be allowed, and with most horses is relatively manageable; the desire for grass often trumps the desire for explosive movement.

Keeping Stall Rest Positive: Rewarding Your Way to Recovery

One way to structure some daily interaction is to use this time for groundwork training. There are various schools of thought on how best to work with your horse on the ground that incorporate the basic elements of classical conditioning, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment. Although horses will learn using any of these techniques, my preference is positive reinforcement training because it is more fun (for both horse and handler), and there are few consequences when novice trainers make mistakes.

We generally expect our horses to behave well in a stall regardless of how long they have been incarcerated. Surprisingly, we don’t hold the same expectation for hand-walking, where horses are routinely tranquilized. When they are not (and sometimes when they are), horses escape, recovery is set back and handlers are often injured. Teaching your horse to walk quietly beside you regardless of how explosive he may be feeling is invaluable. See “Clicker Training How-To” on page 56 for a quick introduction to clicker training, with an example of hand-walking training.

After a dozen or so of these 10-minute training sessions with my hot-blooded dressage horse, I was able to lead him up and down a relatively busy sideroad without incident. Though he would have loved to explode, he had learned that the benefits of staying at my shoulder were worth the self-regulation it took to stay there. Fortunately for us, horses’ concept of ‘return on investment’ is relatively poor.

There are a number of advantages with this kind of training that are particularly relevant to the stall-bound horse. First, you can accomplish most of what you want in the horse’s stall or the immediate vicinity. Second, it is hard to go wrong. At worst, if your timing is off, your horse may take longer to figure out what you want, but he is unlikely to suffer any negative consequences. Third, you can teach your horse skills that will enhance his recovery, such as standing motionless for an ultrasound or radiograph, or tolerating uncomfortable veterinary procedures such as injections. More advanced clicker training can lead to liberty work, which may be particularly effective for bringing the horse back into work. Recent research suggests that allowing the horse to build strength and fitness first, without the added stress of bearing weight, may be a particularly effective rehab program (Brooks, Jennifer, 2011, Physical therapy and approaches for strengthening the stifle and pelvic limb).

The Contract

Most of us have horses because we want to ride, and when a stall rest sentence has been decreed there seems little point in going to the stable. At times like this, however, your horse’s need for you is the greatest. Using this time for working with him in a new way offers a painless and positive vehicle to build an even better relationship during what would otherwise be a dismal time for both of you – one that will undoubtedly reap benefits over the longer term.

Owning a horse, like being in a marriage, is a contract for which we signed on – in sickness and in health. It is our responsibility, and I would argue, our opportunity, to see him through to the other side.

Clicker Training How-To

Clicker training is based on three basic premises from psychological learning theory – classical conditioning, positive reinforcement and shaping.

Classical Conditioning: We can imbue a previously neutral stimulus with a positive value by consistently pairing it with something that is intrinsically rewarding. By creating an association between a distinctive sound (such as a clicker) and a food reward, an animal comes to understand that the sound of the click brings good things. Eventually the click becomes so strongly associated with something pleasurable that it becomes reinforcing in its own right – much like money does for us.

Positive reinforcement: When we reward a behaviour, we make it more likely that the behaviour will reoccur in the future. If we click and reward the horse for a behaviour that we like, such as standing still for a needle, we make it more likely that he will stand still in the future.

Shaping: The third building block of clicker training involves shaping – a process of rewarding closer and closer approximations of the desired behaviour. Since it is unlikely that a needle-shy horse will initially stand still for a needle, he offers no opportunity for reward. Thus, we might first reward the horse for standing quietly while the needle is in sight, later when the needle is being held while stroking the horse’s neck, and so on, until the horse is eventually rewarded for standing still for the injection.

To clicker train your horse, begin by establishing the relationship between the click (or any consistent and distinct sound) and a treat. Make the sound and follow it with a food reward so that these two events become linked.

You can teach the horse not to mug you for treats at the same time as you are making this initial association. I begin with a click and reward immediately following any small gesture from my horse that is not mugging, such as moving his head away from me. By the end of few short sessions, most horses have learned that a) this particular sound means that tasty treats will follow; and b) you don’t get treats by mugging.

Hand-walking Exercise

For a horse on stall rest, I begin with hand-walking training. Start by leading your horse a few steps around his stall (where he is likely to be well-behaved) and click and reward him when he calmly maintains his position at your shoulder. When he understands that his polite following is the behaviour you are rewarding, you can add a few more steps before you click and reward. When this seems solid, you can eventually move out of the stall as you lead him down the aisle a few steps and then back. Eventually, you will raise the criteria (such as increasing the distance, or introducing more activity in the aisle) before you click and reward.

As in all positive reinforcement training, raise only one criteria at a time; when you add something new, lower your expectations. A horse that walks quietly around his stall for one minute may only be able to handle 10 seconds when you move this to the aisle. Err on the side of rewarding more often rather than less so as to pre-empt the explosive behaviour you don’t want. In this way, by the time regular hand-walking is a part of rehab, your horse will have learned to walk like a civilized member of society, drug-free.