Stalling--is it the best way to house your horse, a necessary evil, or something that should be avoided? As it turns out, there is no answer that will apply to all horses. Stalling is a common practice that has been used in the horse industry for generations. People new to the horse industry, as well as many who have been involved in it for years, believe that housing a horse in a stall is the best way to provide adequate care and security for their horses. However, horse owners need to realize there are benefits and drawbacks to maintaining their horse in a stall. Only after considering all of these can one make an informed decision as to whether stalling their horse is the best choice, or whether the horse would be better off maintained on pasture.
Why do people stall horses?
There are several reasons why stalling of horses is popular. First, it allows many more animals to be maintained on a small parcel of land. While it is not unusual for a barn to house 40 horses in individual stalls, the land requirement would be much greater if all of those animals were housed on pasture. Likewise, it would be highly unlikely that all of those animals (for instance, if the population included stallions) could live together in the same pasture.
Another reason for stalling is the easy access the owner or manager has to their horse when it is stalled. When a farrier or veterinarian comes, it is much quicker to grab a halter and go to a stall to catch your horse than it is to go out to the pasture and try to catch a horse that might or might not be interested in being caught. Similarly, during training, one can spend a fair bit of time going back and forth to pastures to catch horses when it is much more convenient to go to stalls. Granted, the extra time spent going to a pasture to catch a horse is probably more than made up for by the time saved by not having to clean stalls. Additionally, a great deal of money is spent on bedding for the stalls and that money is saved when horses are on pasture. Furthermore, there is substantially less waste that one needs to be concerned with in terms of manure when horses are on pasture, as horses kept in stalls result in large amounts of soiled bedding that must be properly disposed of, and this is not an issue with horses housed on pasture.
The third major reason why people stall horses is that they believe it is the safest place for a horse and provides the greatest comfort for the animal. While it is less likely that a stalled horse will get injured by another horse while in its stall, stalling might jeopardize some aspects of its health. Furthermore, in terms of comfort, many--if not most--horses that have been kept both in stalls and out on pasture prefer the latter unless they want to go into a stall simply because they know that is where they are fed.
To better make decisions as to whether one should house their horse in a stall or on pasture, many variables need to be explored including the effects on bone, injury, behavior, respiration, nutrition, shoeing, and appearance.
Contrary to popular belief, bone is not an unchanging mass of mineral, but, instead, it is a dynamic tissue that responds to whatever forces are placed upon it. Bone bends when it encounters large forces and it is that bending that serves as a signal that bone needs to become stronger--usually by adding mineral or changing shape. In contrast, when forces placed upon bone decrease, less bending occurs, which is a signal to bone that it is stronger than necessary and mineral can be removed. To maximize bone strength, bone needs to be exposed routinely to large forces. The typical way in which this is done is through sprinting.
When a horse enters training, he is often stalled and given months of slow training before any rigorous training commences. The belief has been that many miles of trotting and slow cantering will increase bone strength. However, this belief has been found to be untrue; that practice can be detrimental to the development of the skeleton. By having a horse training at a slow speed, the bone adapts to slow speed and low loads, thereby leaving the horse ill-prepared for performing at a faster speed. This is especially true when horses are kept in stalls and not given any daily turnout time to run and play. A study at Michigan State University demonstrated that mineral loss from the cannon bone was rapid and dramatic when young horses were kept in stalls as compared to similar horses maintained on pasture (1). Walking for an hour in a mechanical walker failed to stop or reverse this loss of minerals in the stalled horses. Traditional training that involved two months of walking, trotting, and cantering also failed to restore lost minerals. This bone mineral loss can be especially detrimental to young horses. Modeling of bone, which results in net bone gain or loss, appears to only occur during periods of long bone growth, and it is during these periods that you have the greatest capacity to affect bone strength (2). What is done to bone during that growth process can have a major impact on the skeleton, and maintaining horses in stalls with no access to either free or forced high speed exercise is likely to produce a skeletal system that does not reach its maximum potential strength.
Fortunately, maintaining a horse on pasture, or even just allowing short periods of turnout, usually is sufficient to prevent bone loss from occurring during the early stages of training. Research has shown that a single sprint of 50 to 80 meters, once per day, five days per week, can produce dramatic improvements in bone strength even when stalled (3,4). If you choose to house your horse in a stall and not allow him any opportunity to sprint, either under saddle or during turnout, it is important to realize that your horse might be improperly prepared for rigorous exercise that places a great load on the his skeleton. While this is probably not an issue for a Western pleasure or dressage horse, it is of great concern for a racehorse, jumper, or an eventer, in order to prevent injuries that could delay or terminate a competitive career.
Injuries to horses occur for a wide variety of reasons. Some injuries arise during training as a result of over- or under-conditioning, and sometimes they are the result of the proverbial "bad step." Other injuries occur without any human intervention at all--just by a horse being a horse. In order to prevent that type of injury, many owners house their horses in stalls to avoid injuries from other horses or fences while in the pasture. Many horses have been injured after being turned out after a period of being in a stall, hence, lending credence to the thought that horses are more likely to get injured while on pasture.
However, this might not be a fair comparison. Horses continually housed on pasture are not as likely to get injured as those that are only occasionally turned out. When stalled on a consistent basis, horses are much more likely to run around to get rid of excessive energy than one that is outside constantly. They also might not be as aware of the boundaries of their pasture or turnout lot as those that are outside continually. Likewise, horses that are consistently in a group do not need to re-establish their dominance hierarchy, whereas horses that are housed individually might need to do so when turned out with other horses. For most horses, as long as they are turned out continuously or at least receive daily turnout, the likelihood that they will get injured is relatively small. In fact, the improved mental and physical health of the horse that is raised and maintained outside might more than compensate for the minor risk of injury. A horse that is kept stalled for long periods and then turned out is at the greatest risk for injury and great care needs to be taken to prevent injury at that point. Preventative measures include tiring out the horse with exercise (or potentially even sedating) before it is turned out to minimize the likelihood of it running off at great speed and hitting an object. Additionally, a horse that is continuously outside has a relatively small chance of slipping and being injured when conditions are icy or muddy, while a horse that has been stalled for an extended period has a stronger chance of slipping in poor conditions.
The environmental conditions a horse is exposed to can have varying effects on his overall behavioral development. Horses housed in stalls are offered a very different living environment compared to those horses on pasture (5). Horses are herd animals that seek varying degrees of social interaction. Pastured horses have the ability to establish greater social interactions with other horses in their natural environment. Grazing, physical movement and the sight of other horses are opportunities for the horse to develop a distinct social structure that is not offered to horses that are stalled (5). Limiting the social environment of these animals might hinder the development of this social species. One could question whether stalling is detrimental to their overall social welfare.
Some argue that the changing environment for horses housed on pastures allows them to adapt quicker to other stressors (5). Pastured horses tend to show reduced signs of boredom, and thus tend to show fewer negative behaviors such as cribbing, chewing, and stall walking (obviously it's hard to walk a stall if you aren't in one!). The same Michigan State University study that examined bone formation in horses housed on pasture compared to those placed into stalls also looked at trainability. During the two months of training when the horses were started under saddle and trained to ride, it took substantially less time to train the pastured horses. The pastured horses also demonstrated remarkably fewer unwanted behaviors such as bucking. Some suggest that the greater trainability of the pastured horses was due to their exposure to a greater diversity of stimuli in their environment, and thus they exhibited greater adaptability to new challenges. But it probably is simply a case of the stalled horses wanting or needing the opportunity to run and play a bit before being ready to learn--similar to grade school children needing recess to work off their "excess energy" before being ready to study.
While most scientists and horsemen would agree that being housed continuously on pasture with other horses is the most ideal setting for a horse from the standpoint of horse behavior, there are times when being housed in such a setting might result in a period of stress to the animal. If the horse will need to occasionally be in a stall when away from home for competition, the usually pastured horse might find it extremely stressful to be stalled and isolated from other individuals. Having your horse become extremely stressed and nervous because of the change in housing likely will hurt its performance. Therefore, if you choose to house your horse in a group setting, but also expect to occasionally stall him, it is highly advisable to adapt your horse to the stalled environment long before the he is expected to compete.
Horses originally evolved as grazing animals that supplied slow and steady amounts of feed to their digestive systems by eating grass and other forages for most of their waking hours. When eating in this fashion, horses are usually content and often do not develop stable vices out of boredom. Being kept on pasture helps to facilitate this and provides a very natural method in which horses obtain their nutrition. Even in times when green forage is not available, horses housed on pasture often have free-choice hay. Many stalled horses are only fed twice a day. If hay is provided free choice, horses can nibble on it all day to reduce boredom. If the owner does not provide free choice hay, there is an increased chance that stall vices and digestive problems will develop.
While pasture grazing at will is a great method to keep your horse content, it is much harder to regulate what he eats. Feeding a horse individually you to tightly regulate the quality and quantity of the feed he consumes. This helps ensure that the horse is meeting, but not exceeding, his nutritional requirements. Anyone who has tried to pasture feed a group of horses that includes one who gets "fat on air" and another that is a "hard keeper," quickly realizes the limitations of trying to regulate the feed intake of individual horses on pasture.
On a final note, even good hay might not be as nutrient rich as fresh pasture. There is a saying that "grass is green, hay is dead," which underscores this point. When the vegetation is cut and dried to make hay, there is a gradual reduction in nutrient quality and quantity over time. Hence, access to fresh forage provides a slight advantage over access to hay alone. However, such an advantage can certainly be outweighed in the event that your pastured horse becomes obese because he is gorging himself on the lush, green grass, or if you have a horse that is at the bottom of the pecking order at feed time and cannot get enough calories from pasture alone.
There are few known advantages to stalling that have been found to positively affect the respiratory system of the horse. There are many known drawbacks. Horses confined in stalls are often restricted to areas with decreased airflow. There is an increased chance that the horse will inhale dust particles in its environment. When barn ventilation is decreased, stagnant air can cause irritation to the lungs; this can be especially prevalent in winter months in heated barns with poor ventilation. Bedding can also contribute to the amount of dust that is present in the stall. Stable management plays a major role in keeping the area where the horse is confined clean and free of urine and feces (6). When horses are fed inside, they are more likely to inhale particles from the hay that might irritate the lungs. Horses with respiratory infections should be housed outside if possible to reduce further irritation from the particles they encounter in their indoor environment.
Shoes and Stalling
Shoeing horses is a practice that varies widely in the horse industry. Shoes are used for a variety of reasons and arguments abound as to when they are really needed. If shoes are used, sometimes keeping the horse in a stall is the only practical option, such as with a reining horse with sliders on its hind feet or a gaited horse with weighted shoes. Turning a horse out with shoes such as those will likely result in the shoes getting torn off, or the horse might injure himself or a pasturemate. The same applies for horses that have some type of traction device on the bottom of their shoes such as toe grabs on a racehorse. Replacing pastured horses' shoes is an added expense and often an inconvenience to the owner, especially since shoes are less likely to come off in a stall with no mud, uneven terrain, or fences on which the shoe can get caught. That being said, a pastured horse is less likely to develop hoof problems such as thrush that can thrive in wet bedding, and a barefoot horse on pasture often will wear down his hooves, thus requiring less trimming.
Keeping your horse's appearance in check
For show horses or horses that will be up for sale, owners might find more advantages to stalling their animal when it comes to keeping him looking his best. Keeping a horse in a stall will reduce the nicks and scrapes that they invariably get when out on pasture. Sun bleaching of the coat is avoided if the horse is not exposed to the sun for lengthy periods. Stalling the horse allows the owner to be able to keep the horse basically clean and out of the natural elements, dust, and mud. While a neat appearance can be very important when selling or showing a horse, as the saying goes, "a dirty horse is a happy horse." If given their druthers, most horses would enjoy a good roll in the dirt and the opportunity to play rather than to be kept spotless. Once again, they are similar to children in that regard.
There are many factors to consider when choosing how you will house your horse. If you want to support a strong skeleton, decrease the incidence of respiratory disease, improve gastrointestinal health and function, reduce stall cleaning labor and the amount of bedding used, and have a "happier" horse, pasturing him is probably your best option. If you'd like to keep a greater number of horses in a smaller area, potentially reduce the likelihood of an accidental injuries, regulate the nutrition of individual animals, avoid problems with shoes coming off or horses getting injured because of shoes, and maintain the show appearance of a horse, keeping a horse stalled would be more advantageous.
How you use your horse determines to a great degree how you will manage him. Horse owners must remain aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each practice. Ideally, the welfare of the horse, both physically and mentally, should be the determining factor in the practice that is adopted. It is a balance of all of these issues that lead to the best possible outcome for both the horse and his owner.--Angelique M. Tacia and Brian D. Nielsen, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAN, Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University
1. Hoekstra, K.E., B.D. Nielsen, M.W. Orth, D.S. Rosenstein, H.C. Schott, and J.E. Shelle. 1999. Comparison of bone mineral content and bone metabolism in stall- versus pasture-reared horses. Equine Vet. J. Suppl. 30:601-604.
2. Nielsen, B.D. 2005. Management and training of horses to prevent fractures and improve bone strength. Large Anim. Vet. Rounds. 5(3):1-6.
3. Hiney, K.M., B.D. Nielsen, and D.S. Rosenstein. 2004. Short-duration exercise and confinement alters bone mineral content and shape in weanling horses. J. Anim. Sci. 82(8):2313-2320.
4. Hiney, K.M., B.D. Nielsen, D. Rosenstein, M.W. Orth, and B.P. Marks. 2004. High-intensity exercise of short duration alters bovine bone density and shape. J. Anim. Sci. 82:1612-1620.
5. Rivera, E., S. Benjamin, B.D. Nielsen, J.E. Shelle, and A.J. Zanella. 2002. Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to initial training: the comparison between pasture versus stalled horses. Applied Anim. Behav. Sci. 78:235-252.
6. Webster, A. J., A.F. Clark, T.M. Madelin, and C.M. Wathes. 1987. Air hygiene in stables. 1. Effects of stable design, ventilation and management on the concentration of respirable dust. Equine Vet. J. 19 (5): 448-453.
About the Author
POLL: Visits from the Vet