Why stable horses?

Most horses and ponies can live out all year round provided they have adequate food, shelter and rugs – so why bother with stables? The usual answer is 'for the wellbeing of the horse' - yet stabling can result in lameness, respiratory diseases and stable vices. A stable may seem cosy to us but it is not a natural environment for a horse. Looking at stabling in terms of what your horse actually needs will help you provide a safe and healthy environment.

The need for stabling

Well built stables Horses are individuals – some hate being confined, while others shiver at the first sign of rain. Although unconcerned by temperatures as low as -20 degrees, horses can really suffer if it is also wet and windy. Arabs and thoroughbreds, which are thin-skinned, need a stable to protect them from bad weather, as do horses that are old or have been clipped. Ponies and heavier horses are hardier but still require extra feed to live out all winter.

In summer, thin skinned horses also tend to be more affected by flies, while older animals often keep their winter coat and suffer in the heat. All horses at grass need some protection from the weather, preferably a field shelter, and a sick or injured horse may need to be stabled whatever the weather.

Another reason for stabling is to control diet. On good pasture, ponies in particular can become extremely overweight, often resulting in laminitis. Grazing can be restricted by stabling, electric fencing or muzzling but electric fences can be pushed down and stabling is probably kinder than muzzling in a field of luscious grass. For a competition horse, control of food intake is essential for peak performance and this is difficult without stabling.

One of the main reasons for stabling is convenience for the owner – a valid reason provided the horse’s health does not suffer. A stabled horse is clean and accessible when you want to ride. There is also less risk of injury than if the horse is larking about in a field with other horses. Of course, in built-up areas, stabling may be the only option.

Problems with stabling

High hay rackA horse can be kept reasonably fit with one hour's work per day but if stabled for the other 23 hours is likely to develop problems. A horse kept at grass will graze for up to 16 hours per day. The movement aids digestion and ensures good blood circulation. Standing in a stable for long periods slows the metabolism and various foot, leg and digestive problems can develop. Placing a hay rack too high (as in the picture) can also cause problems - hay seed can get in the eyes and dust and spores form the hay will be breathed in. It is preferable to feed hay from the floor which is more natural for the horse and allows mucus to flow downwards to help prevent dust reaching the lungs.

Many stabled horses are fed twice a day and spend long periods with an empty stomach. This is bad for digestion and results in boredom. Hay should always be available unless the horse in prone to gaining weight. Using a small mesh haynet allows you to give less hay but keeps the horse occupied for longer.

Horse kept stabled for long periods can develop 'stable vices' (properly called stereotypies). These, which seem to imitate the basic need to move and eat, include:

  • weaving – swaying from leg to leg, tiring the horse and damaging his legs.
  • crib biting / wind sucking – the horse grips the manger (crib) or other object and chews or sucks in air. Various 'remedies' are available (weaving grills, crib collars, etc.) but these don’t address the real problem – boredom. It the horse has to be stabled for long periods then a stable mirror or one of the various stable toys available may reduce the likelihood of these habits developing.

A hot stuffy stable makes horses prone to disease which can quickly spread amongst closely confined horses. Dust from hay, straw and the horse’s body can lead to respiratory problems.

For their physical and mental health, horses really need several hours of freedom each day, preferably in a field. Stabling at night and turning out by day in winter, and vice-versa in the summer, gives the benefits of a stable without many of the disadvantages.

Stable design

Horse in a stable which is too smallA stable can be either a stall or a loose box. In a stall the horse is tied, usually facing the wall, by a weighted rope passing through a ring. The weight keeps the rope taut and prevents the horse getting tangled. Stalls are typically 6 ft by 11 ft (1.8m x 3.4m), which allows only limited movement and makes boredom a serious problem. Stalls are really only suitable for short periods e.g. teathering grass-kept horses between lessons at a riding school.

In a loose box the horse is free to move around. The minimum size is 10 ft by 10 ft (3m x 3m) for a pony and 12 ft by 12 ft (3.7m x 3.7m) for a horse, preferably larger. A large horse in a small stable does not save on bedding – droppings are trampled and more bedding is soiled. More seriously, if the stable is too small the horse may roll over and trap his legs against the wall (become cast). The minimum height should be 9 ft. The horse pictured above looks very cramped in a very small stable. The door should be at least 4 ft (1.2m) wide to prevent the horse banging his hips and you being squashed as you lead him out.

Well ventilated stableGood ventilation is essential as the ammonia gas given off by urine quickly contaminates the air. The term hag-ridden comes from the old belief that if a horse was found in his stable in the morning sweating and breathing hard that he had been ridden by a hag (witch) overnight. More likely the horse was suffering from being confined in a poorly ventilated stable. The stable shown has good ventilation under the eaves. However it should be emphasised that the horse should not be cold or in a draught in the stable as this will make him prone to infection.

Take home message

Stabling a horse may essential for his wellbeing but is often purely for the convenience of the owner. We need to be aware that keeping a horse in such an unnatural environment can be detrimental and should make every effort to make it comfortable for him.

More information

Posted on 10 July, 2011

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