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From Hay to Play: Effective Ways to Keep Your Horse Happy

Use these proven strategies—from grooming to routine to social stimulation—to keep your horse content and thriving.
closeup of a young woman kissing her bay horse's nose
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We all want our horses to be happy. Happy horses are pleasant to be around, learn quickly, and interact with us well. Plus, we feel rewarded when we’ve taken good care of our equine friends. With that in mind, we thought we’d highlight 10 ways you can help make your horse’s days happy ones.

Adequate Roughage

When we think of happy times in our lives, food often comes to mind. The same is probably true in your horse’s thinking. Food, in the form of grass or hay, is his primary need. Though he might kick his bucket demanding grain, keeping roughage working through his gut is instrumental to his happiness. It takes him about two days to process what he eats, so the grass he ate yesterday is still with him today.

Fresh Water

Now that he’s eaten all that grass, your horse needs enough water to make soup in that fermentation vat we call the hindgut. Without enough water, hay or grass begins to compact, and trouble follows. Water also plays an important role in the rest of the horse’s world. Want a happy horse? Make sure he has good-quality hay and fresh water.


You wouldn’t need an alarm clock if you lived in the barn. That’s because horses have a figurative clock in their heads. Ask anyone who has to explain daylight-saving time to their horses. The better you can stick to a routine, the happier the horses are. That’s not just referring to time, either. Make any other changes—such as feed, water, and turnout times—gradually, too.


a bay and gray horse groom and scratch each other's withers in a field

Horses need friends. They’re happy in a group situation, and if you see a horse that’s a loner, he probably has some problem. Perhaps he’s ill or hurting, or he’s been pushed out of the group. You’ll know right off that he’s not a happy camper. The buddy doesn’t have to be another horse (it could be a donkey, goat, or other animal!), though that’s preferable.

Visual Stimulation and Ventilation

Ever walk through a dark barn full of horses? They usually have some type of grumpy behavior.

If you have to keep your horse in a barn, find a way to let him see other horses—perhaps using a stall guard instead of a solid door, when appropriate. Let cats live in the barn, so at least the horse can see cats playing in the aisle. And be sure plenty of fresh air flows through the barn, so he can breathe freely and enjoy all the natural smells of the season.


If you’ve ever had to keep a horse stall-bound due to an injury, you’ll know firsthand how much horses need to exercise to stay happy. That movement not only keeps their body in shape, but each step also helps their feet get a good blood supply. Movement also helps the digestion process. If you must keep your horse inside due to terrible weather or some other reason, see if you can let him walk—at least up and down the barn aisle.


Horses seem to need downtime, just to be themselves and let down mentally, or maybe to kick up their heels. After a stressful period, perhaps following the show or racing season, you’ll find that many professionals turn their horses out for a few weeks.

If your horse lives in a busy barn with limited turnout time, putting him on the longe line or working him in a round pen might give him exercise, but not the downtime he needs. See if you can schedule some turnout for him or at least hand-walk him and let him graze on the lead rope a distance from the barn.

Vet and Farrier Care

No one’s happy when their feet hurt, and your horse is no exception. Once your horse’s feet get long or unbalanced, it would be like you walking in shoes with run-down heels. Pretty soon it’s going to affect his attitude as well as his performance.

Inadequate deworming will cause your horse to struggle with parasites, which can also make him unhappy. It won’t be long before he’ll be feeding “a cast of thousands,” and it will take a toll on his immune system, if not cause colic or heart problems.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to have your horse’s teeth checked. If he has sharp “points,” eating won’t be much fun because each bite irritates his cheeks.


A woman in denim grooms her paint horse while he's tied to a fence

“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is the universal horse motto, and we see it played out all the time. Stabled horses or those without a buddy often don’t have that luxury, so here’s a place you can really win points with your horse.

Groom him so his skin is clean. That will also give you an opportunity to notice any bug bites or injuries. But also take the time to find those special spots he likes scratched.

Watch: How To Groom Your Horse

Give ’em a Job

Horses love to have a purpose, and it’s exciting for an owner to have a horse who knows his job. Just watch cutting horses at work, and you’ll notice many of them seem to love what they do. The same holds true when you see an event horse in the start box or the care with which a therapeutic riding horse moves with his precious cargo.

But horses don’t have to have a jazzy job to feel worthwhile. The retiree might see his job as coming for his carrot and having his feet picked out. And the lack of focus in an untrained horse might be the result of him not having found his place in the world. Simple things like telling a yearling where to stand and praising him when he stands there (not scolding him when he’s in the wrong place) probably give him a sense that all’s right with the world. When we see that look come over our horses’ faces, it makes us happy, too.

Take-Home Message

Should you have any doubts about the best methods for managing your horse and keeping him content, consult your veterinarian or trainer for further suggestions. And if you sense your horse isn’t happy, don’t ignore that intuition, especially if he’s usually upbeat. Changes in your horse’s apparent happiness often are the first signs a health or lameness problem is brewing, just as you often feel less than chipper the day before you start to fight off a cold. Signs of an ill or unhappy horse include:

  • Change of attitude in the stable – depressed, aggressive, withdrawn
  • Development of bad habits – weaving, cribbing, kicking, lunging, circling
  • Boredom and lack of interest in surroundings
  • Change in physical appearance – sunken, lackluster look
  • Appetite changes – refusing grain, “bolting” (rapidly eating) grain
  • Change in stall habits – previously “neat” stalls become messy and vice versa
  • Training problems – stubbornness, spooking, short attention span

Many of the signs of an unhappy horse are the same as the onset of various illnesses. Discuss these with your veterinarian to rule out physical causes. Most importantly, understand your horse and his habits so you are immediately aware of any change.

Making your horse happy will not only benefit him, but it will also enrich your life. Although we might be attributing human emotions to horses, most of us want to feel like our horses love us, and we will go to great lengths to ensure their happiness and comfort, as well we should.

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