We consider what “horseplay” is and how it benefits the senior horse, along with some practical ideas on how to incorporate play into your routine.
A senior horse may mean different things to different people. To some, it’s a horse over the age of 30. To others, it’s a horse retired by injury, or semi-retired but still in light work. Whatever your horse’s age, and whether or not she’s showing signs of aging either physically or mentally, stimulation through horseplay can benefit her health and longevity.
Activity through “horseplay” promotes well-being via the regular production of dopamine1,2 (the neurotransmitter associated with motor movement and emotional response). As dopamine is such an important factor in your horse’s daily health,1,2,3,4 it’s important you step in to ensure dopamine production remains active. Lack of dopamine can lead to feelings of depression and affect your horse’s digestion, so even if her riding days are over, regular dopamine production is crucial. Play is one way to accomplish this, while also deepening the bond you have with your equine companion.
What is play?
Play is generally considered a juvenile pursuit. So how does it benefit a senior horse? Envisage foals engaging in mock fights – they’re judging where their feet are in order to develop motor skills, or honing complex social skills. So play actually equals learning; and when a horse goes through a learning process, she produces dopamine.
As a horse ages, the importance of producing that “feel good” chemical doesn’t diminish. In fact, she still gets her kicks through the release of dopamine following an adrenaline rush. In the wild, this dopamine release usually follows flight from a perceived threat. In a domestic environment, this could be a plastic bag!
However, your senior horse doesn’t have the same physical capabilities she once did, and retirement may not bring about the same number of opportunities to become alert before being able to relax. For this reason, it’s important to incorporate another source of stimulating enjoyment into her routine — play.
Benefits of play and learning
Recent research1,2,5 has demonstrated that horses encouraged to problem-solve have increased dopamine production and greater mental flexibility. In other words, playing with your horse helps maintain mental and physical dexterity.
These activities have digestive benefits too, since dopamine affects the endocrine system. So horseplay helps your horse receive more nutritional advantage from her diet, setting her up for a healthier retirement.
Up to 15% to 30%2 of older horses and ponies suffer from Cushing’s disease, often caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain3,4. Regular play helps counteract this too.
It almost goes without saying that engaging in play with your horse is a wonderful bonding activity that benefits both of you. In the process of learning, she will come to see you as a herd leader she can trust. Keep in mind that play should never be rushed. Dedicate a chunk of quality time to engage with her, and put aside mental distractions (like friends and phones). Your horse will be able to sense if your mind is elsewhere!
Some ideas for play
One of the most common mistakes when it comes to horseplay and learning is asking for too much too soon. Instead, enjoy working together step-by-step. Play has the capacity to build your horse’s confidence, so create a fun, easy-going environment and let her learn gradually while enjoying the session.
Language and leadership
The goal of this game is to get your horse’s feet moving without pulling on her head. Using your directional hand (the hand closest to the horse), point in the direction you would like her to go. Your driving hand is the one closest to the tail end of the rope. Use this hand as the accelerator pedal and drive your horse by twirling a length of rope that measures from the ground to your waist overhand. If your horse is moving, do not chase her with the twirling rope. Instead, keep twirling at the same spot you started at to avoid confusion. Once she’s mastered this, try adding in a few cones for her to weave through, or invite her to kick a large ball as she moves.
How it benefits your senior: Besides sharpening her ability to read your body language and expressions, this activity strengthens her mental dexterity and physical coordination.
Drive and draw
This is a fun and simple game that requires no equipment! Draw a straight line in the sand (or use a lead line to make a straight line on the grass) and teach your horse to come toward you when you beckon her (then relax), and back away from you in a straight line (then relax). If she spent her life training, chances are she’s already mastered this skill – but it doesn’t hurt to maintain it.
How it benefits your senior: Teaches her to trust and respond to your signals while improving balance and engaging her back and core.
Teach your horse to touch an object
This activity is sometimes called an “intention game”. You can use a single object (e.g. a ball on a cone) or, when she becomes good at it, a sequence of objects that you point to. This is a gentle exercise but great for learning.
How it benefits your senior: It keeps your horse mentally fit and decreases boredom by supplying a flow of dopamine.
Teach your horse to be in sync with you when you walk forwards and backwards. Eventually, you can train her to step with the same leg, and stop when you stop.
How it benefits your senior: The backwards movement is great for the core and back muscles as well as general movement for digestion.
Using ground poles, teach your horse to touch one foot to the pole. Another use for the pole is to ask her to straddle it and walk parallel with it while it’s between her front and back legs. When she has mastered this, you could progress to a polypipe with a larger circumference. This is quite a difficult task for the horse as she cannot physically see where her legs are.
How it benefits your senior: It offers plenty of mental stimulation and physical coordination, combined with core strength, to keep her back in good shape.
When it comes to horseplay, the main goal is dopamine production for your horse’s mental and physical well-being. Don’t be too focused on the end result. The joy should be in the journey of spending time with your horse, ensuring a healthy retirement, and strengthening the bond between you both.
1S.D. McBride et al. “Applied neurophysiology of the horse; implications for training, husbandry and welfare”. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 90–101 Sebastian D. McBridea, Matthew O. Parkerb, Kirsty Robertsc, Andrew Hemmings.
2S.D. McBride. “Dopamine in Equine Brains – Plenary Lecture”, Aug. 6–9, 2014, International Society of Equitation Science Conference, Denmark.