Housing, Bedding, and Pasture (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Equine Preventive Medicine by Bradford G. Bentz, VMD. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

Stabling, pasturing, bedding, and other aspects of a horse's living environment have major implications on the potential for health problems.

With the domestication of horses, we have imposed the need to house large numbers of animals in one or a group of barns or other facilities that permit easier care while minimizing our discomfort and exposure to the elements. While helpful for the caretaker, this has brought new problems and health concerns for horses in this situation.

Two major problems with stabling horses in barns are generally poor ventilation and a high concentration of animals for disease communication.  A barn intended to stable horses should be designed with ventilation in mind. At least eight complete air changes should take place each hour in a stable if good-quality bedding and hay are used.  (The volume of air equal to the volume of the barn enters the barn and leaves it eight times per hour with good ventilation.) This is necessary to help minimize dissemination of aerosol-spread diseases and to minimize exposure to air irritants and allergens.

Barns need not be heated for horses to be comfortable. In fact, most horses thrive in cold weather as long as they are kept dry and out of direct wind. Heating barns and closing their doors to keep in the warmth benefit people working in such barns but are less than ideal for the horses. Such practices increase humidity within the barn.  A humid environment further adds to the growth of bacteria and mold. Personnel in show barns often blanket horses and heat barns during the cold months in order to maintain short-hair coats on the horses.  Again, this is not ideal for the health of the horse but appears to be necessary by today's show standards. If blanketing is practiced, care should be taken not to blanket so heavily that the horse(s) is caused to sweat.

Barn flooring should be made of good footing, and the aisle ways and stall floors should allow efficient cleaning. Many times dirt floors are preferable to concrete or blacktop flooring, but they allow bacteria to grow and hold moisture from urine and other fluids. An alternative to these flooring ideas in stalls is placement of stall mats. Mats may become damp and musty on the underside; therefore, as for dirt floors, it is advisable to clean and dry the mats routinely.

Horses may be bedded on numerous types of material. Commonly used materials include straw, shavings, and sawdust.  All bedding material should be inspected for significant amounts of dust, mold, and insects or other parasites such as chiggers. Less commonly used bedding types include newspaper, peat, and hay.
Muck piles should be distant from the barn and horses to minimize exposure to parasites and insects that live in or are attracted to them.

Regular manure and bedding removal is important. Composting may also be a practical way to control manure and waste removal from stalls.

Horses living solely on pasture should have access to a "run-in shed" or some other shelter to protect them from direct wind and rain.

Another consideration for preventing injuries and problems with horses is fencing.  A number of types of fencing are now available for livestock and horses. However, generally speaking, fencing that is appropriate for cattle or other animals including barbed-wire fencing and high-tensile wire may not be good choices for horses. Barbed wire and high-tensile wire fencing tend to cause severe lacerations in horses that run into it or that simply get a leg caught. Vinyl post-and-rail fencing, wood post-and-rail fencing, and wood split-rail fencing tend to be sturdier and not to lead to such severe cuts and injuries. However, these types of fencing are significantly more expensive and are subject to wood chewing and cribbing. Vinyl fencing may melt under high temperatures generated by a fire or other intense heat source.

Electric fences have been used with some success. However, if a horse is spooked, it can easily run through this type of fencing. The premise to electric fencing is that the horses develop an aversion to the fence after having been shocked. However, many owners prefer the peace of mind of sturdier fencing more capable of withstanding a horse's impact and preventing its escape onto nearby roads or other dangerous areas. Some people have combined electric fencing with other types of fencing to maximize the safety and protection of otherwise less ideal fencing, while minimizing expense.

Another type of fencing that is less expensive and appears to be very strong and very safe is vinyl-tape fencing. This fencing is made of high-tensile wire covered with vinyl stripping. Because it is covered, it loses its tendency to cause cuts on impact. Furthermore, it can stretch a great distance even under the severe impact of animals the size of horses.  A final consideration in fencing is inevitably its appearance. Much of the wood fencing and the vinyl-post and rail fencings tend to be most attractive. However, the newer vinyl-tape fencing comes in a number of widths, and the widest size mimics the appearance of regular vinyl post-and-rail fencing while still having the characteristics of the tape fencing and the persistence of a wire, even if all of the vinyl were to melt from a fire, at a relatively reduced expense.

About the Author

Bradford G. Bentz, VMD, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP (equine)

Brad Bentz, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, ACVECC, owns Bluegrass Equine Performance and Internal Medicine in Lexington, Ky., where he specializes in advanced internal medicine and critical care focused on helping equine patients recuperate at home. He’s authored numerous books, articles, and papers about horse health and currently serves as commission veterinarian for the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

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