Keeping Stalled Horses Happy

No matter the reason your horse is stalled, you can keep him happy and comfortable.

Angela Riddle gave her barn operators strict orders to turn her Tennessee Walking Horse Amicus Mack out for a full day at least twice each week. But during one of her frequent barn visits, Riddle soon noticed that her horse was less enthusiastic about his turnout time than she was.

"You'd think he'd be in paradise out here," says Riddle. "But after about 30 minutes, he's at the gate, ready to come in. I really think he enjoys being in his stall more than being outdoors."

Equine behaviorist Jenn Williams, PhD, co-founder of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society in Rosharon, Texas, is not surprised. Amicus has spent the majority of his four years residing in a frequently mucked, spacious stall in a busy training barn where feed, forage, and fresh water are delivered twice daily. He's ridden each morning, and, thanks to his barn operator's busy training and instruction schedule, he gets plenty of opportunities for horse and human interactions every day.

In short, his barn life includes everything it takes to keep stalled horses happy.

"Horses need stimulation and have social needs," says Williams. "Most do well at busy barns. The worst thing you can do is put a horse in a stall with nobody around."

That's because boredom is a stalled horse's fiercest foe, and horses will do whatever it takes to relieve it, often to their detriment.

"Boredom can be devastating for horses," Williams says. "They display unhealthy--even dangerous--behaviors, such as cribbing, weaving, and kicking. Excessive boredom leads to anxiety and even depression. At that point, some horses won't even eat."

Activity is the best remedy for boredom, but its benefits go beyond the behavioral.

According to Eric De Vos, DVM, of the Los Padres Equine Veterinary Service in Nipomo, Calif., stalled horses are more prone to hoof ailments than their pastured counterparts. Long periods of standing in damp bedding make hooves susceptible to bacteria that contribute to hoof wall conditions, including white line disease (a condition where infection causes separation between the outer and inner hoof tissues). Meanwhile, lack of physical exercise diminishes blood flow horses need for podiatric health.

"Horses are supposed to be moving," he says. "They walk a bit and eat a bit. Just the act of walking and munching increases blood flow to the hoof that reduces the possibility of hoof wall problems."

So De Vos, who serves on the Owner Education Committee of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, recommends that horses get out of their stalls as frequently as possible. Their activities need not be strenuous, but they must be consistent.

"Some stalls are built with small turnout areas attached to them that allow horses to move in and out of their stalls at will," De Vos says. "But we'd like to see horses turned out every day, be ridden every day, or even walked around the barn for a few minutes every day. If that's not possible, it should happen at least three or four times a week."

De Vos' advice is not lost on Riddle, who continues to ensure her horse gets plenty of turnout time despite his lack of enthusiasm.

"Just because he's comfortable in his own little world doesn't mean I'm going to let him spend all his time in it," she says.

Start With the Basics

Stall design and maintenance are fundamental to a horse's healthy barn life. So, certain rules of thumb apply for creating the optimal stall environment.

"Stalls should be as natural as possible," explains Kevin Kline, PhD, professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "They should also be tall enough for comfort and large enough so the horse can exercise or lie down."

For most horses, that means a minimum stall size of 5 feet wide and 8 feet long (this describes a tie stall, which generally isn't used for long periods of time--usually only in cases of daytime tying as horses go in and out, as with trail ride outfitters), with a door measuring 5 feet wide by 6 feet tall. But, there's more than size that matters.

"Horses in barns are more prone to respiratory infections, including dust and mold allergies," Kline says. "Lack of fresh air causes those problems."

According to Kline, ammonia fumes and dust become trapped in stalls where ventilation is inadequate. Windows that open to either the barn or to the outdoors promote natural airflow and keep horses in touch with what's happening beyond the stall's confines.

"The optimum situation is to exchange air in the stall every four to eight hours," Kline says.

In summer, Kline recommends installing box fans over doors or at windows to boost air circulation and keep flies and other pests at bay. Fans generally must be quite strong to accomplish fly deterrence.

(For more information on barn ventilation for winter see page 26.)

Floor coverings also play a part in stalled horse health. Beyond providing a soft spot for a horse to lie down, a 3- to 4-inch layer of bedding lends traction on wood, dirt, or concrete floors, and it reduces stress on horses' feet and legs during long periods of stall time. Commercially available rubber stall mats offer an extra measure of cushion, but they still require at least an inch of bedding to assist with drainage and absorption of the three gallons of urine an average horse produces in a day .

According to De Vos, the choice of bedding material is a matter of preference, availability, and affordability. Sand, straw, and wood shavings are the most common options. All meet urine drainage requirements, and sand and straw pose scant health threats if horses ingest them in small quantities. Wood shavings, however, could contain a hidden health threat.

"Most wood shavings are fine," he says. "Most are pine and ingestion is not a hazard as long as they're not choking on it. Just be sure bedding does not contain red maple; that's toxic to horses." Black walnut is another wood source to avoid. It can cause laminitis simply when a horse stands in it.

Finally, regular stall maintenance is critical to keeping stalled horses healthy. Solid waste should be removed at least once daily. Urine-soaked bedding also should be removed daily and replaced with fresh material.

"When to completely strip stalls is a judgment call," De Vos says.

Beyond clean, comfortable, well- ventilated accommodations, stalled horses' requirements aren't much different from their pastured counterparts.

"They need good forage to chew on, and a salt or mineral block," Kline says. "Aside from that, try not to overdo the grain."

Making the Transition

Whether they're in training, in recovery from a medical condition or injury, or because of an owner's change of circumstances, most horses will spend at least some time residing in a stall. While most horses make the transition from pasture to barn life with ease, the adjustment can be stressful for even the most laid-back equines.

That's because not only must horses adapt to stalls' confined spaces and separation from pasturemates, they must get used to the daily human activities connected with barn life.

"New surroundings can be very scary for horses," says Williams. "At barns where there is a lot of hustle and bustle, the transition can be particularly stressful for horses who have been exclusively in the pasture."

She says it's best to ease horses into the transition by balancing stall time with pasture play.

"Put the horse in the pasture for half a day, and the stall the other half, to wean him off the pasture," she says. "Also, if the horse is being stalled to recover from an injury, try to put a pasture buddy in a stall next door or in one situated so they can see each other."

Even if bringing along a buddy is not an option, it's critical for horses to know other horses are nearby.

"Horses are herd animals, and being unable to see other horses tends to make them anxious."--Dr. Eric De Vos

"Horses are herd animals, and being unable to see other horses tends to make them anxious," says De Vos. "At least let that horse see other horses, either across the aisle, outside, through a window, or an open barn door."

How long the pasture-to-stall adjustment takes varies from horse to horse. Some make the transition in days, some in weeks. Eventually, the majority of horses successfully acclimate to life in the barn.

"They pick it up pretty quick," De Vos says. "Owners just need to be patient."

Toy Tactics

From rubber balls to hanging treat dispensers, horse enrichment toys represent one of the fastest growing segments of the pet enrichment product industry. But determining a toy's real value as a boredom buster for stalled horses is tough.

However, according to Williams, stall toys might be just the distraction some horses need to discourage cribbing and other negative behaviors. The trick is to find a toy capable of capturing--and sustaining--a horse's attention.

"In my opinion, the best toys are the ones that dispense a treat or a small bit of grain if a horse turns it a certain way," she says. "The reward component is the most successful in keeping a horse's interest."

Still, some horses are attracted to even simpler things.

"We filled a milk jug with rocks and hung it in a stall for our young Saddlebred," Williams says. "She played with that jug until she destroyed it. Even a rope with knots tied in it can keep some horses amused."

Whatever the toy, be sure it's installed so that it will be safe for the horse. Hang toys in a corner or somewhere the horse is not likely to bump into them. Hang them high enough to allow easy access without excessive stretching. Finally, be sure ropes and other tethering materials are tied so the horse is unlikely to injure himself.

"You don't want the horse to get hung up in it," De Vos says.

Take-Home Message

Some horses have to spend part or most of their time in stalls on a regular basis, and some horses are forced to go from a pastured life to a stall because of illness or injury. This change in living arrangements can be stressful on the horse, so prepare your stall to be a comfortable dwelling place that has adequate food and airflow and other horses visible, and add distractions in the form of "toys" as needed to keep his mind busy and relieve stress.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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