“Why are you teaching the ponies circus tricks?”  I was asked.

Are we teaching circus tricks?

An animal in the wild, any animal, has its mind and time occupied.  A horse has to find enough food, possibly digging through snow or covering great distances.  They must find water, avoid predators, look for suitable breeding partners and mares are raising their foals.  Herd dynamics take even more time.  Do they have time to get bored?  No.  Do you see a wild horse with a stable vice, such as wind sucking or weaving?  No.  The same is true for any animal, be it a grazing prey animal (deer, buck, etc) a predator (lion, tiger, wolf etc) fish or birds.  They have basic needs and these must be met.  

We take an animal, supply its basic needs – we feed them, water them, choose their friends, geld the colts.  Suddenly, they are unemployed.  Fair enough – a life of leisure, right?  Then, we house them, at worse in small cages (yes, call your horse’s stable a cage, does that change how you see it?), and at best in a fenced paddock with friends.  He is still contained in a much smaller area than he would if he were wild.  Again, apply this to all animals – your dog should be running with his pack, hunting his dinner.  Now, he sleeps on the couch and only gets to walk an hour or two a day.  A cat has more freedom, unless a city apartment cat, but has still lost his main jobs.  So, what do they all have in common?  Boredom.    Horses start to develop stable vices.  Dogs chew your shoes and jump on visitors.  Cats claw the furniture.  So, what do we need to do about it?  Environmental and behavioural Enrichment.  Which is?

Lottie the cat has a treat box, that she can roll around until the treats fall out. As she is particularly food motivated, this is a very welcome game for her, expending a few calories as she plays and taking more time than simply eating out of a bowl. Behavioural enrichment in practice.
Lottie the cat has a treat box, that she can roll around until the treats fall out. As she is particularly food motivated, this is a very welcome game for her, expending a few calories as she plays and taking more time than simply eating out of a bowl. Behavioural enrichment in practice.

Some of these fixes are passive – environmental – which tend to be about making the housing / area better for the animal.  They would include a bigger paddock for your horse.  Interesting things – a river, banks, forests, a sand pit for rolling, (paddock paradise, which is a track system within paddocks, is becoming popular).  

In human terms, imagine that you have been locked in somewhere for some reason.  You don’t have a job or a purpose, and could just sit 24 hours a day, staring into space.  Environmental enrichment could be having a window, a comfortable bed, a TV.  Something that could distract you.

Behavioural enrichment is more about having something to do.  This is, thankfully, becoming more common in zoos and laboratories that house animals.  It is things such a hiding the animal’s food in logs or pipes and giving them pieces of stick or straw to pull the food out, giving them balls suspended from the roof filled with hay, giving a mouse a running wheel or giving apes climbing frames and swinging ropes.  (Lottie’s treat barrel).  For a horse, it could be a small hole haynet, or a treat ball that must be rolled around until cubes fall out.  Or, in human terms, a gym to work out in, a jigsaw puzzle, a recipe and ingredients to cook your own food.  It’s something that is generally more about natural behaviour – hunting out your food, keeping active, solving a problem.    

Now, I’m not condoning catching wild animals and bringing them in – wild dolphins belong at sea, wild elephants belong wandering the savannah, but if an animal is in captivity (even if it a domesticated horse) they need enrichment.  Elephants standing on balls or monkeys dressed up and playing a guitar – that is a whole different ball game and really shouldn’t be happening.  Have a look here, for what I consider a good scheme for animals having to live in a zoo.

All of these animals are trying to live with humans, which can be challenging all on its own – humans have a whole new set of rules and difficulties.  So, we need to help the animals adapt.

You teach your dog to sit, to lie down, not to jump on visitors, to walk on a lead.  Why?  Are these circus tricks?    We don’t think of them in that way – we think of it as making it easier for us to live with our dogs, and easier for our dogs to understand us and cope with living in houses, going out for exercise and not getting in trouble for knocking granny over.  We teach our cats to scratch their scratching posts instead of the furniture, and to chase the toy mouse hanging on the end of a string, because it distracts them and gives them some hunting type play.  Is that a circus trick?

How about horses?  We teach them to lead, to tie up, to stand for grooming and for the farrier.  In a lot of cases, we teach them to be ridden, driven or worked.  We teach them how to adapt – we domesticated them, we owe it to them to help them live in our worlds.  How about challenging their learning ability?  In a recent blog and members monthly lesson, I was discussing proprioception, and some of the tasks we can set horses to help them discover more about their own bodies.  These included standing on plastic bags, walking over poles, stepping through hula hoops.  Its shows them where their body’s edges are, how tall they are, how wide they are.  It does challenge them to think.  It distracts them from standing in a stable or paddock all day, and helps them to move their bodies.  

What do you think, behavioural and environmental enrichment, or circus tricks?  (And yes, for paid Kudaguru members, this is an upcoming lesson).

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *