Although it’s preferable to allow your horse to spend as much time as possible roaming freely around a field or paddock, there may be occasions when he needs to be confined to his stable.
So, how can you keep your horse happy and healthy when he’s stabled for extended periods of time?
Let’s find out!
Why are horses stabled?
There are several reasons why horses need to be stabled from time-to-time, including:
- Lack of winter turnout
- Adverse weather conditions
- Illness or injury
Also, if you have a horse that’s being prepared for sale or has an important competition coming up, you may decide to keep him stabled to avoid the risk of him being injured.
Of course, some livery yards simply don’t have enough turnout to allow every horse to spend 24 hours a day out at grass, so stabling for long periods is logistically necessary.
What are the disadvantages of stabling?
So, what’s the problem with keeping your horse stabled?
If you’ve spent a lot of money on purchasing a potential dressage star, or you’ve worked really hard to get your horse to peak fitness for competition, you might want to keep him safely in his stable where he can’t sustain an injury.
However, it’s important to understand that the horse’s physiology demands that he has plenty of exercise every day.
The horse is a trickle feeder, wandering from pasture to pasture, eating as he goes.
Horses that are stabled for much or all of the day can be prone to developing respiratory problems, such as COPD, especially if they are kept in a barn with poor ventilation.
Also, if the horse is left standing on damp bedding for long periods, he may develop thrush.
As well as physical problems, many horses suffer psychologically from being kept stabled for long periods. The horse is a gregarious, social animal. Keeping away from other horses can cause stress and boredom.
A bored horse can quickly develop stable vices, including weaving, cribbing, wood-chewing, and box-walking. Many stabled horses habitually kick their stall doors and walls, and they can also become aggressive, taking out their frustrations on their handlers.
That stress can transpose itself to the horse’s work too. You may find that your horse becomes difficult to ride and is resistant for the first part of the schooling session.
How to achieve a happy balance between indoors and outdoors
Most horses do spend some of their day or all of the night in a stable.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you live in a region where the winter climate is exceptionally cold, and the ground freezes solid at night, your horse may be more comfortable in his stable during the night.
Similarly, if you live in an area that has exceptionally hot summers, you may prefer to turn your horse out overnight when the air is cooler, and there are fewer flies around to bother him.
Stable hygiene and comfort
If your horse does need to spend time in his stable, you must ensure that his environment is comfortable and hygienic.
Keep the stable fresh by skipping out droppings and removing wet bedding several times during the day. Wet bedding underfoot can cause thrush, and the ammonia fumes from the horse’s urine can irritate his lungs and upper airway.
Poorly ventilated stables that are full of circulating dust and mold can cause COPD and other respiratory problems. So, you must ensure that the stables get plenty of fresh air, either via open vents or by using an air-conditioning system.
Dirty stables attract flies, which can be incredibly irritating to a horse that’s kept inside. Keep bedding fresh and hang sticky flypapers (out of reach of the horse!) to keep the insect population under control.
A stabled horse should never be left alone. Bored, lonely horses become stressed, and that can lead to health problems and mental suffering.
Boredom can be kept at bay by providing a stabled horse with equine company in an adjacent stall. Some horses enjoy the company of goats and pet sheep, and barn cats can also help to provide entertainment, as well as keeping the rodent population under control.
Try to choose a stable that best suits your horse’s temperament. Some horses love to be where the action is, right in the center of the yard. Others prefer a quiet life where they won’t be disturbed.
However, in general, horses are calmer and more settled when they have a view to enjoy. That could be a vista that takes in fields and trees, or it could be an outlook on the arena or jumping field.
Horses that are stabled adjacent to each other should be positioned next to a friend, rather than a horse that’s likely to be a bully. Muzzle touching and mutual grooming are great if possible, and if the horses get on well.
Room to move
Many stables are too small for a horse to lay down, stand up, and turn around comfortably. If possible, you should make sure that the stable or loose-box that your horse is living in is around the size of a large field shelter.
Ideally, you should construct a small, secure “run” attached to the stable. Leave the stable door open so that the horse can wander as he wishes. That gives the horse the sense that he is now in control of his physical state, i.e., he can choose to be inside or outside, which will reduce stress.
Environmental enrichment is essential for the stabled horse.
You can provide your horse with that enrichment by providing him with:
- A mineral lick
- A treat-ball
- A pillow post
- Hidden pieces of carrot and apple
- Safe rubber toys
If your horse has developed any potential harmful boredom behaviors, you can protect them from harming themselves.
- Install rubber sheets to protect the teeth of horses that chew, crib, or windsuck on stable doors and to prevent damage to the wood.
- Fit cribbing collars to horses that windsuck.
- Install anti-weave bars to discourage weaving.
Although these measures will physically prevent undesirable behaviors, it’s your priority to provide stabled horses with an environment that keeps them happy and stress-free so that they don’t develop stable vices in the first place.
Feeding the stabled horse
The most important thing to know about feeding a horse that’s stabled for any length of time is that he must receive plenty of dust-free, high-quality hay or haylage.
Forage should be fed frequently in small amounts. That keeps the horse occupied and mimics the trickle feeding habit of a wild horse while keeping boredom away.
Ideally, forage should be fed from a hay bin or from the floor. That allows the horse to eat without the risk of inhaling hayseeds and dust.
Large amounts of hard feed should not be fed unless the horse is receiving plenty of exercise. A stabled horse that’s stuffed full of oats is an accident waiting to happen when he’s taken out of the stable for exercise under saddle or in-hand!
It’s essential that you provide the horse with a supply of fresh, clean water.
Clean the water buckets frequently, replenish the water throughout the day and make sure any automatic waterers are clean and working correctly.
The sick horse on box rest
Occasionally, a sick or injured horse will have to remain confined to a stable during his recovery period.
- Use an extra-thick layer of bedding in the stable to encourage the horse to lay down and rest without the risk of capped hocks or scrapes.
- Consider using two stables for a sick horse. Move the horse from one box to the other to make mucking out easier.
- Spend time grooming and cleaning the horse. That will help to keep him from becoming bored, and he’ll enjoy the attention too.
- Be sure to check the horse’s hooves for signs of fungal infection or drying out, and treat problems promptly.
- Change dressings and poultices regularly, as per your vet’s instructions.
- Be sure to adjust the horse’s diet so that he is not receiving too much hard feed. A diet that’s too protein-rich could increase the risk of laminitis and colic.
- Keep a daily record of the horse’s resting respiration and pulse rate while he’s on box rest. That will give you a clear indication of potential problems that may be brewing.
- Make a note of all feed and medication that the horse is receiving. That’s information that your vet will find helpful when devising a treatment regimen.
- Be vigilant when entering and leaving the stable, especially when the horse begins to recover. That’s a prime time for an escape attempt, which could undo all your good work!
Keeping a horse confined to a stable for extended periods is not ideal for the animal or his owner.
Where possible and practical, ensure that your horse spends at least part of his day or night outside with the freedom to roam and socialize with others.
If that’s not possible, the horse must be exercised or at the very least, walked out in-hand for at least half an hour twice per day, unless advised otherwise by your vet.
If your horse has needed to be stabled for long periods, please let us know in the comments below. Also, feel free to share any hint and tips that helped to prevent your horse from going stir crazy!