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Stall or Pasture… What’s Best for Horses?

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It is a common practice in North America and Europe to board horses in stalls, or loose boxes. This management practice offers benefits to horse owners and barn staff, but it is not in the best interest of horses because they experience restrictions in grazing, social behavior, movement, airflow and the performance of other normal patterns of behavior. In this article we will discuss the reasons why confining horses in isolation is detrimental and offer some ideas about alternative confinement solutions.

If we go back to the origin of species, we’ll note that horses and people evolved by completely opposite survival strategies. People hid in order to survive. Our ancestors were cave dwellers who climbed trees to escape from danger. Horses, instead, developed a flight response. Horses used speed and distance to survive. If you look at a stall from the point of view of a human, you see a safe shelter that protects the horse from thermal extremes, keeps the horse from being kicked or bitten by other horses and limits the amount of movement necessary to find water and food. What does a stall look like from the horse’s perspective?

horses in the stable

It does not require any vast expenditure of thought to discover that life is action, ‘to be’ is synonymous with ‘to do’: therefore, it is a sheer necessity of existence that an animated being must be doing something. ~ James Lupton, 1884

Horses in stalls spend 40% of their time standing and 47% of their time eating. Feral, free-ranging horses spend an average of 20% of their time standing and 60% of their time grazing, which includes almost constant movement. They travel distances of 12-40 miles per day, depending on the location of water, the availability of food and time that is spent foraging. Free-range feral horses travel on varying terrain and they interact with members of their herd almost constantly, moving in synchrony to avoid predators and locate water and food sources.

Stalls, loose boxes and individual paddocks make sense from a human perspective, but they inhibit the behavioral and physical needs of horses in the following ways. The airflow in barns is limited, which can cause respiratory problems in horses. Movement is diminished, which results in horses standing around for long periods of time on soft bedding, weakening the hooves and restricting locomotion. Movement is an important factor to horse management because, among other things, it aids digestion. Horses that are socially isolated in confined housing such as stalls, are not able to engage in most of the social behaviors natural to the herd animals we love.

Feral, free roaming horses live in small herds. Each member of the herd has a role, which ensures the herd’s protection, safety, vigilance and comfort. For example, ‘allogrooming’, which is the term behavioral scientists use to refer to mutual grooming in horses, is not just a behavior that keeps flies away. Allogrooming has been shown to lower heart rate. Mutual grooming sessions can’t be simply replaced by a curry comb and some fly spray because they have a more important consequence, which is stress reduction. Unnatural confinement would not appear to be conducive to a healthy body and mind for horses.

So what can horse owners do? What options do we have for keeping our equine friends sound and secure within the framework of current management practices in North America and Europe? If we think outside the box (or stall), we can find ways to confine the horses we love in environments that encourage movement and grazing time, natural feeding patterns, healthy feet and lungs and fulfill the social behavioral needs of horses. Viable practices require us to be tolerant of the superficial scratches and scrapes that occur as equine social hierarchies are established.

The deeper value of a natural confinement system for horses is worth the odd cosmetic blemish. Horses that live in small herds are less apt to engage in self-comforting behaviors, known as ‘stereotypies’, such as cribbing and weaving. There is plenty of scientific evidence suggesting that the apparently functionless, repetitive behaviors we call ‘stable vices’ are born out of boredom and poor quality of life. Addressing the cause of stable vices by altering confinement practices in a way that increases the horses’ social and nutritional environment is our responsibility.

One solution is to create a “Paddock Paradise”, as hoof care professional Jamie Jackson advocates in his inspiring book by this title. Jackson gives us the recipe for creating a successful natural environment within the confines of a horse paddock. The premise here is to design an environment that stimulates horses to behave more naturally according to their instincts, which is key to the physical and mental health of equines. The model Jackson proposes benefits horses of all breeds, regardless of climate, on virtually any size horse property.

Jackson’s Paddock Paradise is one  way of finding viable practices that keep our horses ‘on track’ with a natural level of stimulation. While a typical pasture is rectangular in shape, the track design of Paddock Paradise encourages horses to nibble and move, mimicking the activity of the horses’ natural grazing patterns. You can achieve this by spreading feed, particularly hay, around a track so that horses keep on moving to ‘discover’ new piles of food. In this way we can increase what Temple Grandin refers to as the horse’s ‘seeking behavior’.

There are other innovative solutions to customize pasture board and enrich your horse’s environment, even if grass pasture is not possible or appropriate for your horse’s situation. Enriched equine environments might include a water hole, crossings lined with river rocks to wear down the hoof, sandy pits for rolling and, of course, social stimulation. Your imagination is the limit. The key is to avoid anthropomorphizing and learn to think like a horse.  Next time you look at a stall or a barn, look at it through the horse’s eyes. If you were a prey animal that relied on herd members to protect you, would you willingly choose to enter into this small space that takes away your freedom and isolates you from your herd? All ideas are valid as long as, from the horse’s perspective, they feel more natural than being trapped in a “cave”.

Resources

Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding, by Jamie Jackson; www.paddockparadise.com

The Welfare of Horses, edited by Natalie Waran

Animals Makes Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin

About the Author

Giulia OrthEquus in Focus is an organization founded to advance equine welfare through education. Through videos, articles and graphics, we focus on the behavioral and physiological needs of horses with the goal of reaching a state of clear perception and understanding of the world of equines. We hope our site will be useful and interesting to horse owners, equine practitioners and educators involved in the world of horses.View all posts by Giulia Orth →

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