The Stresses of Easy Living

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Horse In Stall

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’re doing the best you can for your horse. When you consider how this creature generously gives both body and heart to bring you happiness, it’s obvious that he deserves the finest care you can comfortably afford to provide in return. If it’s within your means, this may mean providing a box stall deeply bedded in fresh straw or shavings and nightly blanketing. You sleep peacefully at night knowing that unlike the unfortunate horses you see braving the elements in fields and paddocks, your horse is properly cared for in a home almost as cozy as your own.

It might come as a surprise, however, to know that your horse’s idea of a perfect living arrangement may differ radically from your own. In fact, your ideal may be creating stress and causing vices and health problems for your equine friend.

The Great Outdoors

As herbivores, horses are designed to graze for food several hours a day. In one study, horses in natural settings spent an astonishing 70 percent of their time grazing. Grazing activities give positive purpose to a horse’s daily routine. Additionally, as members of a species with a strong social structure, most horses enjoy living in the company of other compatible horses. Stall confinement and lack of equine social contact can result in such behavior problems as wood chewing, cribbing or stall weaving that stem from excess energy, social deprivation or sheer boredom.

While you may be concerned about whether your horse can comfortably contend with increased exposure to the elements, horses are equipped by nature with physical adaptations to cope with environmental variations. In addition to water-resistant coats that thicken or shed with the seasons, they also possess specialized vascular systems within their hooves that maintain adequate temperatures and circulatory patterns under a wide variety of external conditions, like while traveling through snow. Most healthy horses should be able to handle moderate seasonal fluctuations in the environment while living outdoors, provided that an adequate run-in shelter is available.

Studies indicate that horses exhibit fewer behavioral problems when living closer to their natural state, outdoors with other horses. In fact, the more restrictive life of “luxury” that many horses lead has been shown to result in various deviant behavior patterns. It’s been demonstrated that confinement and isolation do increase aggression. You only have to walk down a trainer’s breezeway at the local racetrack or show barn to see the effect that being cooped up has on the attitudes of horses brimming over with energy.

Have you ever noticed the number of horses that will pin their ears and posture aggressively as you walk quietly past them in their tiny box stalls? That’s no coincidence.

The Social Structure

In 1991, Michael Mal and his colleagues published a study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, in which 36 mares were assigned to live in either group pastures, confinement stalls that still permitted contact with other horses or in isolation with no contact permitted with other horses. Observations on their exercise habits, feeding behaviors and resting habits were recorded. Dr. Mal discovered that the pastured mares spent the most time resting and grazing, while the isolated mares spent the most time trotting around, traveling farther than the other groups. The isolated mares also spent the least time standing and resting. The mares that were confined to stalls but had contact with other horses were not as restless as the isolated mares, but were definitely more active and tended to engage in a wider variety of activities than did the pastured mares. The results of this study supported the research of others who have indicated that over-management of horses is often a source of stress for them.

These findings were enhanced by a later study of the social and environmental preferences of a group of 10 Standardbred, Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse mares. The horses were housed either as two horses living together, as one horse living separately but with other horses in the adjoining pen, or as one horse living alone and without neighbors. They determined that the solitary horses living without neighbors walked and trotted more often — at the expense of feeding time — than did either of the other groups. It was also noted that the solitary horses with neighbors spent 50 percent of their time in visual or physical contact with the other horses.

Bad Habits

There’s little doubt that stall confinement and inadequate exercise can trigger many of the behavioral problems in horses, which are known as vices. The Veterinarian’s Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior reports cribbing, biting and holding on to stall walls and mangers, and wood chewing often originate due to lack of exercise and environmental stimuli. It also states that behavioral problems, such as stall pacing, in which horses walk or trot around their stalls in a fixed pattern, and stall weaving, in which they rhythmically shift their weight from one foreleg to the other, are adaptive patterns that confined animals develop in an effort to expend excess energy and to overcome the lack of environmental stimuli. In the book Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists, by Dr. Katherine Houpt, the author states that the best treatment for stall walking or weaving is to keep the animal with other horses on pasture with a run-in for shelter. She also offers that other vices, such as stall kicking and pawing, sometimes develop as forms of self-stimulation for confined animals (in addition to other reasons). The litany of problems related to confined housing and insufficient exercise levels is quite compelling.

With this in mind, however, there are still several negatives related to maintaining horses on pasture, particularly when they are housed with other horses. Physical injury can occur simply from frolicking about in the pasture or as a result of traumatic episodes with other horses. But when weighing these concerns, it’s important to consider that some of the behaviors stall-confined horses engage in can be physically damaging as well. The physical risks of pasture life can be minimized by acquainting the horse with the boundaries of obstacles within the pasture while being led by a handler, as well as making certain that each new horse and his pasture mates are compatible.

Horse In Stall
Horses by Peter Pearson on flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Also, the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, of horses living together can translate into variations in the food, water and shelter resources available to each horse; typically the highest ranked horses get rounder and stay drier while the underdogs get leaner. However, if this becomes problematic, separate feeding areas for each horse can be established.

There is one behavioral problem that tends to show up more frequently in pastured horses than those isolated or confined, which I call codependency. Pastured horses quite simply do not want to be separated from each other, for ridden work or for any other reason. This can be a real danger if either the working horse or the horse left behind in the pasture starts behaving desperately. If this becomes a problem with your horse, you may need to work with a trainer to overcome this situation.

Hopefully, horse owners will consider this information from all angles and will make informed decisions about what’s best for their own horses. After carefully studying the pros and cons of stall confinement versus pasture living for horses, I expect that many owners will conclude that the benefit most horses gain from living closer to nature in the company of other horses usually exceeds the risks that can be associated with it, although certain horses will prove to be exceptions.

If we endeavor to be keenly observant of the behavior of every horse entrusted to our care, and strive to provide the living situation that each individual horse seems to need, the comfort and happiness of our horses will be the best reward.

Further Reading
The Best of Outdoor Living

51 COMMENTS

  1. All in all, this was a very good and informative article. I have read this article carefully and I agree that if horses are left in a field vs. isolated in a box stall, the horse will definitely be better off in the field -but- this article fails to mention some things that add to the stalls advantages and things that horse owners can do to relieve stress.
    There are many advantages to stalls. Horses stay cleaner and are more easily caught for farrier and vet vists. Plus when people do not have the necessary land for large paddocks they pretty much have to keep their horses in stalls at least part of the time. Because if a horse that is left in only one small field year round for years on end can make the field ‘horse sick’. Of course if a person has a lot of land and money to rotate fields, use the big machinery, fix the big machines, rent or buy the machines -ect, ect. When it comes to theft prevention, a horse in a busy stable is a lot less tempting then a horse in a field. Horses in stables are usually visited more because they need more care, thus, when problems to arise in the horse, they are spotted and can be dealt with earlier. Of course that last statement depends totally on the type of care, management, and situation of the people caring for the animals in question.
    IF a person does have a horse in a box stall, for various reasons, they don’t need to lose sleep over it. There are plenty of things they can do that can ease the stress and ‘damage’ done by stall living. First there is the stall design and location. Stalls should allow horses to see out. Then they can see other horses and watch all the humans work up and down the aisles. Now this article at least mentions that horses in stalls that allow contact do relive some stress. At one point in the article says ‘a tiny stall’. Now it’s basic knowledge that a stall must be at least adequate for the size of the animal for the animal’s comfort and health. The stall should also be big and inviting enough for the horse to lie down and get up safely (without becoming cast). There are many Horse Keeping and Stable designing books that would tell you the ideal range of stall sizes. Basically bigger is better in all cases except for the messy horse that like churning up their bedding. Then you want only a comfortable size. Then you’re throwing out less bedding. There are many Toys produced just for horses that can fit in the stall. A horse with toys is less stressed. Plus, if the toys are rotated with new ones and old ones switched now and then they provide excellent stimulation. If you don’t have a second horse you can buy (or build) a metal mirror (with a frame to avoid any sharp edges) and attach securely to a wall. Research has shown that a horse seeing its own reflection has the same distressing effect as seeing another horse across a fence. Keep in mind that the mirror HAS to be metal for safety reasons. A horse can easily break a glass one.
    However, out of all of this the next best thing to having a field, is a run attached to the stall. Then the horse can come in and out of the stall and stretch their legs at least somewhat.
    When comparing box stalls to living out in the open for horses, living outside is best hands down. But a horse that is kept active, given the stimulation he needs, and given the right diet exercise program (according to your vet’s and Ferrier’s advice), will be just as happy living in his nice cozy stall.
    But that’s just my opinion.

  2. This is a great article. My horses live outside and can go into the barn whenever they want. They are very happy and their personalities have blossomed since I rescued them from stall living.

  3. I think that writing this artical is a very smart one because it can help people if they are having these kind of problems with their horses. i am soon to be a first time horse owner and i am getting the best information from this website! THANKS

  4. This article really reassured me that my horses are happy even if they don’t have a stall. I was worried that they wouldn’t like to be in the cold or heat but if its their natural behaviour then its probably be better.

  5. I hope alot of owners read this. I’ve worked at many barns, such as racing, training, and basic of basic riding barns and privet/boarding only types. While keeping my horse at each one. My horse is outside 24-7 with other horses.. She has no habits and has a very friendly attitude! Horse that are stall kept that get maybe 2 hrs daily turn out are in a very stressed state. Its a very obivous thing and people seem to not care to notice..even when it’s there horse.

  6. hi i learned from this article but have a comment- at the barn where i take lessons and help out taking care of the horses for about two and a half years, during the nice weather in spring,summer, and fall they let the horses out all day which seems to agree with your article but during the winter months the horses don’t get much outdoor time. Is that a problem? the horses are ridden together and spend a lot of time together otherwise. thanks for your time. God bless.

  7. I found this article informative and scary. I live within city limits, which means my horse is borded at the local fairgrounds. It is mandatory that our horses are kept in stalls most of the time. We do have a field to turn them out in but it must be shared with other borders so leaving our horses out for more than a couple of hours a day would probably get us into trouble with other borders. Not to mention would be unfair to their horses. I often wonder how stressful this living arrangement is for my horse as well as how many of her behavior issues are directly related to this. I wonder how we can make a stalled life easier on our horses when we have no other option but to keep them put up most of the time.

  8. This article really helped me out. I had some concerns both ways, but this way I saw them all laid out and compared, and now I know what I need to do.

  9. this is a great article its very true i feel anyways .my horses have had both side of this life .and we find they like the open range with out side shelter when they feel they need to get out of the weather .they do seem to do better together this way we have 2 mare and a gilding they do well together .

  10. What if you have one horse on your property that is pastured, but does not have access to other horses close by? You do work him, and you do spend time with him, will the fact of not having another horse create personality issues?

  11. I agree with this article, I have 3 mares that are out on pasture most of the time, but without a run in, I tend to keep them in barn in inclement weather. The stall walls only go about 3 1/2 feet, so they still have contact with each other. I think trying to keep them as natural as possible is best for their health.

  12. I think that these things have definetly help. I think they will lower my horses’ stresses. So I will put them in grass the whole day but at night bring them end. So they have time to be free from the stall.

  13. A very good article. I have lept horses in amny of the situations that are mentioned. Some horse4s are exceptions but for the most part I agree with the discussion.
    Personally I have found the best situation for my mare is a shed row barn where she can look out and hang out her stall door and see her neighbors. With daily turn out with her friends.
    She seems much happier wit this situation than she was with 24/7 turn out or eve an inside stall , no visiting other horses or hanging head out and every other day turn out which led to some behavioral issue that resolved on changing her circumstances. and I would never consider stall life with no turn out at all. Horses need time to just be horses.

  14. I am an American living in France with my beautiful tobiano mare of 11 years. She is a pasture horse who lives alone (sometimes shares a field with two geldings) for most of the summer. She has a run in shelter (3 sided) and plenty of mountain hay in October and November. She is more of a submissive mare, so when she is stressed by one of the geldings who charges her at times she is happy to come home to our pasture and be alone. She has cows on the other side and another work horse she can see in the other pastures. I never see any personality changes during her cycles and she seems content having me all to herself and her own private pasture. In winter she goes to a beautiful boarding facility with free pasture 24/7, a barn/stable if she desires or her own run in shed. There are other horses and they are all introduced slowly to see who is compatible. Natural grazing, no horseshoes with regular foot trims and a lot of personal love and exercise have worked for me and my mare. I have not been able to ride her since September (2008) due an injury, but I give her natural living and lots of love. That seems to be the best way! My farrier is an international horseman who believes in the barefoot horse and good horse dentistry! I agre the natural horse living is the ONLY WAY, horses were not meant to be let in boxes, stalls or any jail like living provisions. However, I worry that y mare needs a compatible pasture buddy!

  15. I know my horse Grey was happies when she had 1 other friend to graze with and plenty of space to getaway from that friend everyonce in a while. I had a lean to for her to hide from the weather and she was happy with that.

  16. i think this article made perfect sense i have two horses and i leave them out 24/7 and they do have a run in for protection against the elements since i do live in canada. they always seem happy but ji do have a neighbour that i think would benefit greatly from this article because she stall her horses everynight and she just has one that had died of amonia which is very upsetting thank you for wrighting such a good article with good insight

  17. i have to say this article has gotten to a lot of people! look at the respose you’ve recieved in the comments. And I think many people will agree with this article i mean ‘the prof is in the pouding.’ If you watch a horse that has been confined, there is much more obedient issues and problems that will arise from these kinds of things that we believe is helping them but in the long run, it isnt!
    I have a Quarter Horse, Mare who stays out 24/7 and never goes in a barn, but again I live in Canada so our winters can become harsh so we provide the horses with a run in shelter, although they rarely use it. Its natural for horses to be out in the elements, instead of going into the shelter, they’d rather bare their butts to the wind and stay warm that way, its much better for them. And as for blanketing I feel that is only for humans benefit, it makes us feel better inside but its making it worse for our horses. They’re getting use to not having to grow that thick winter coat, and when you take it off in the spring its hard for them! I understand people do it for the purpose of keeping their showing coats, but if you dont need to show, dont blanket them unless their is a underlying health condition. But i totally 100% stand by this article and I think its about time someone wrote something like this! These things never show up because it would hurt the tack store industry and building idustry. Think about it, how much does the regular horse person spend on blankets every year! And those big heated or even non-heated barns cost a lot of money that could be going toward the care of our horses, the care they really need!
    thank you for wriiting this article, I think its eye opening for a lot of people. And a lot of people need to read this, it should be put in all the horse magasines for the winter! And possibly passed around in email or something. I know I will be passing this along to all my horse related buddies. 🙂

  18. I agree–GREAT article! Anyone who enjoyed this or would like to read more, I suggest “SOUL OF A HORSE” by Joe Camp. It is a wonderful book!!!!

  19. I totally agree with the article. But in my position (3.0 acres), and 6 horses I have to carefully manage my pasture. My horses are out at least 3 hrs a day in winter and approx 4-5 hrs a day in the summer. If I did not do this I would have no pasture for them to graze. It works for me and for them. Believe me if I had 6-10 acres and some turn-out sheds, they would be out. So thank you for writing this article, I agree whole heartedly but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive. I also live in an area which has become very congested with houses, developments, town houses, etc so this is the only option I have since I no longer have access to the 6 acre pasture I rented.

  20. I couldn’t agree more! and I have seen the difference with my own eyes. The school horse I ride only gets out for 3-4 hours a day and he is very cranky! When you approach him you have to be very careful; his ears are way back and he wants to bite. Whereas my sister’s horse (who is kept at a different stable) is kept out almost all the time and he is so happy and free in his attitude.

  21. Great article. We are at a new barn (our horses were not turned out very much at the old barn) and unless the weather is real bad the horses are turned out all day until feeding time. We have though separted the mares and geldings, at the suggestion of our vet and trainer. But after reading this article we may have to rethink that.

  22. I know a few people too who should read this article. They wonder why their horses have “issues” and bounce off everything when they take them out to ride. Duh? They’ve been in their solitary confinement cell day in and day out.

  23. For the past 20 years my horses have lived outside 24/7 with access to shelters. Geldings and Mares are together and I only separate them if issues develop due to hierarchy amongst them. My stallion has his own paddock right beside them and is allowed contact with them over the fence. They range in age from 27 years to 1 1/2 years.
    Many of my horsey friends stable up to 12 hours daily and run out to put their horses inside at the first sign of inclement weather. I’ve even been told by some that their horses are different then mine and require blankets and stalls, much to my amusement. They are seriously concerned over the health issues each horse has ie: coughs,colics, heaves etc. They are also concerned about the wood chewing, cribbing, weaving, stall kicking and other aggressive behaviour most of their horses have . Yes they love their horses and care for them, but their need to impose their human needs and thought processes for an animal that requires
    space and basic care necessities tends to just boggle my mind. I do recognize the need to blanket or stall a horse when the temperature/wind factor goes to -18 C if the horse is shivering by all means protect, but in most cases leave what nature created for them to survive rain, snow and cold alone, for a healthier happier horse.

  24. This is a great article, however one very common health issue was overlooked. Ulcers. Horses are grazing animals and any stress coupled with lack of food in the gut is a recipe for ulcers.
    One thing that helps is to not feed grain first. If your horse is awaiting feed in the morning, give hay first. Let them eat for at least a half an hour before you give them their grain. I had an older gelding who had ulcers from his competition days and was also stalled until he came into my care. He always did better with hay first especially in the winter when there was limited grass. Also try Papaya Puree. I feed 2 ounces twice a day to any high stress horse and proir to, during and shortly after any stressful event. This can include shows, traveling, training, storms, injuries, ect.

  25. I must have very happy horses, no stalls, just shelter, alot of their own horse friends, and grazing when every they want to, but at night they must come into the pen around the shelter for their own good.

  26. I wish I could put my horse out in pasture, but the area I live in just doesn’t have much opportunity for that. Many owners dont keep their horses in stalls because they think its better for them, but because they have no other option.

  27. Common sense treatment of horses is the best. I always watch each individual and try to figure out what is best for them. My 1st horse loved his stall, my 2nd horse wanted to be outside 24/7 even in the worst weather.
    Cribbers and fence eaters get their field electrified to prevent access to posts and rails.
    We rotate pastures to prevent boredom. Always access to grass or hay and room to run.

  28. I definitely believe in keeping horses as close to natural living as possible. Mine are on pasture with a shelter) 24/7 except for the WORST winter weather, they are barefoot, and they don’t wear halters when out in the fields.

  29. I board both my horses and I love the way they are kept. A large number of horses, round bales and many acers of green pasture. Niether of my horses have shoes (probably never will unless it is causeing them sever discomfort) and my pony only wears a blanket when the possibulity of freezing rain is near, otherwise, as a shetland I feel he is perfect;y fine with many others to help keep him warm in a snow storm, seeing as how he is one of the top 10 in the pecking order and the only pony he is well taken care of. My QH who has been pampered with stalls and blankets and anything else you can think of will be braveing his 1st winter outside a stall in my care, he has a lean too and a very thick blanket and he is grained twice a day so he is a bit mroe spoiled but only because he doesn’t have the abulity to grow the thick long waterproof coat that my pony has and it is his very 1st winter like this. I can’t see my horses liveing in a stall all year long, in my opinion THAT is a type of torter.

  30. Where my horse lives, I have seen a huge difference in living field vs. stall life. He had a hard life in the past and he was very stall protective and angry when anyone ( horse or person) was near his stall. We recently moved him to a field with a run in barn with four stalls and I have seen a huge difference in his overall attitude. He is happier and so much easier and safer to be around. I am a huge believer in the positive results of a horse living closer to the way they live naturally.

  31. Very helpful! We’ll be moving out on to 140 acres soon and it’s going to be my first time caring for horses 101. I’ve always boarded my horses before.

  32. My horses are kept outdoors 24/7, as long as there isn’t solid ice outside. We have never had a cribber, a horse that paces, or a stall swayer because of this. I don’t understand why some people put their horses in if there’s a flurry or a small shower. As long as the stalls are open, they should be allowed to come and go as they wish.

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