Thursday, December 13, 2012

Keeping 'em Busy

Since Ramsey, and by extension, Emma, are having to be incarcerated in the barn most of the time, I have been trying to find ways to keep them occupied and happy.  The long confinement associated with orthopedic medicine is one of the biggest challenges that equines face when injured.  Movement is one of the most integral aspects of life for horses and donkeys and depriving them of their freedom of movement is one of the worst things we humans do to them.  Even when there is no choice, it is vital to try and alleviate the stress caused by confinement.  Some horses can't deal with it at all and end up being euthanized even though their injuries could otherwise be treated. 

Fortunately, donkeys are proving, once again, to be much more sensible and Emma and Ramsey have adapted far better than any horse I have ever known.  Ramsey, in particular, has been amazingly accepting of the necessary confinement, much more so that I would ever have imagined given his age.  Emma gets a bit more frustrated, but she is still being remarkably good about it. 

I try to make sure that tehy get to spend several hours each day outside as long as the weather permits and Emma gets to roam around the property as long as she respects the boundaries.  Since she doesn't want to get too far away from Ramsey, this works well and gives her some much needed freedom and exercise....

The single most useful device I have found for alleviating confinement stress however, is a small-mesh hay net.  I have always loathed hay nets as they have traditionally been dangerous, suicide enablers in my opinion.  The small-mesh nets are a bit different though, mainly because they are, well, small-mesh.  The old fashioned kind were just the right size for a horse to stick a foot through and I was initially very wary of even trying these newer versions with Emma and Ramsey, especially since Ramsey's feet are so tiny and he loves to chew on ropes.  However, Riding Buddy has been using them with her horses for a couple of years now with great results and after the success I have had with my slow feeder boxes, I decided to give it a try.

I have been amazed at the results.  Keep in mind that I always feed grass hay free choice and my animals have access to hay 24 hours a day so the net is not extending their feed time.  The net seems to provide the constant, slow nibbling and browsing that donkeys are designed for and they enjoy it.  I was astonished to find that after a few days of introduction, both Emma and Ramsey (especially Ramsey) prefer the net over the loose hay.  It is the exact same feed from the same bale of hay and they still have free choice access to loose hay, however the hay net is almost always close to empty in the morning while the loose hay remains untouched. 

I have noticed several other things since I started using the net about two weeks ago:
  • Both Emma and Ramsey are more relaxed.
  • They chew on the barn boards less.
  • They have NOT chewed on the net.  They might if it were empty, but as long as there is even a tiny bit of hay inside, even Ramsey does not chew on it or play with it.
  • They are both less mouthy.  As most donkey owners know, donkeys like to pick things up, bite things and they will often grab at clothing.  I discourage this last as it can be dangerous to the wearer of said clothing.  Since using the net, they have not done this even once.
  • They seldom play with their toys in the barn anymore...
Every day, I pick up the toys and put them in a corner.  Before using the net, I found them all over the place every morning.  I have not moved them in over a week now.  I am not against them playing with toys, far from it, but I have to wonder if the toy-tossing is the result of frustration rather than play.  What I have learned from this...
  • I have had a complete reversal on my thoughts about hay nets (the small-mesh ones, I still think the old fashioned kind are a good way to kill a horse).
  • The slow nibbling clearly fills a need I had not even been aware of.
  • The nets and slow-feeder boxes are not only a good way to decrease feed consumption, they also make my animals happier.  Riding Buddy has had similar results.
  • I would still prefer that they could eat off the ground as they are intended, it is healthier.  There are nets that are designed for this and I may try them once Ramsey is older and his feet are bigger. 
  • This would be a very good way to help prevent sand colic in areas where that is a problem, especially if the net was hung over a rubber mat. 
  • The net has been a God-send in alleviating stall-stress.
  • My donkeys are happier then they were.


  1. Such an interesting observation Kris, I had no idea!! I knew they were supposed to be healthier for their teeth because they simulated foraging but would never have equated that with "mental health". Impressive, keep on documenting, the information is valuable to others, thanks for sharing. DRR

  2. I always learn so much when I visit this blog. I've been reading a lot of donkey blogs and have oft wondered "Why do donkeys play with toys - there aren't any natural populations of orange traffic cones, so why are the animals so drawn to them?"

    (forgive my animal behavior background)

    Thank you SO much for the card and the fudge. Both made me extremely happy and it was a wonderful unexpected happy end to a long day. The card is now propped up on my desk at work to remind me that happy things happen.

    Maybe I should put the fudge into a small mesh bag so I don't eat it all at once...

  3. That really is very interesting. May I ask, alfalfa or grass hay?

    1. I only feed grass hay. I know alfalfa is often the only thing available out west, but it is not a good choice for horses and especially donkeys. It is too rich and the calcium levels are too high. My hay is native NY meadow grass, mostly a mixture of orchard, brome and timothy.

  4. I learned something new about donkeys. Well done Kris!

  5. Yay for small mesh slow feeder hay nets! I'm glad they are becoming so useful for the donkeys. I discovered them back in 2009 and made a post about them:

    I made my own using professional grade hockey nets and I now have 3 of them in various locations in the barn and around the paddocks. And they have held up well with my own two horses using them every day as well as visiting horses, too. We only feed grass hay here or beardless winter wheat (similar to alfalfa but without the danger of high calcium and sugars. But it is high in protein and digestibility. But the only hay that goes in the small mesh feeders is grass because the tiny leaves in alfalfa and the wheat bran in the wheat hay would just fall right out. lol!

    My most recent post about our small mesh hay feeders was last year:

    Yay for hay! And happy equines!


  6. Hi Kris,
    I use slow feeder hay nets (1" holes) for my 4 donkeys and have found all the benefits that you describe. They prefer them to loose hay - I think they like the puzzle! I have 12 hay bags for 4 donkeys and I measure out 1 lb. of hay for each donkey 4x a day. If I hang the bags, I hang from a piece of sisal baling twine. That way it will break if anyone gets stuck, the twine will break but I also toss them on the ground like pillows and they love that too!

    I also have one bag that fits a square bale and I put a bale of barley straw in that. I have found that you need the right hay - coarse, not too soft which is what you want for donkeys anyway.

  7. I think I will be making a trip to the tack store tomorrow to buy two of these hay bags. I put out almost a full bale of hay for two horses and they have it gone within a few hours and then have to wait for me to get home from work to get more. I will hang them right in the run in shed.