(Editor's Note: Any brand names noted in this article are for discussion only. This article is not intended as definitive list of suppliers or features; inclusion does not imply endorsement.)
We've come a long way since the days of the simple tie stall and the humble hitching post. Necessity is the mother of invention, and through the years we've added stall mats, cross-ties, hay racks, and automatic waterers to the mix. However, our understanding of the equine has evolved throughout the years, and today new products take health and safety concerns into consideration along with maintenance issues. Just like office desk chairs have become ergonomic, barn equipment is being viewed the same way. A simple waterer is designed with the horse's natural drinking patterns in mind. Innovative hay racks and feeders prevent respiratory illness. And stall mats mimic the benefits of a horse's natural habitat.
"In a perfect world, the horse wouldn't be in a stall, he'd be out in a pasture," says Karen Hayes, DVM, author of many books on horse care, including The Perfect Stall, How to Be the Perfect Horsekeeper, and Hands on Horse Care (Iron Horse Press, www.integralhorse.com). "I believe that many health problems, health and safety issues, and injuries that horses suffer in their lives with humans are largely the result of being forced to live in a situation that is diametrically opposed to the way they were created. But this is the real world, and we have to do the best we can to give the horse a stall that mimics the kind of lifestyle that they have in the wild."
Hayes considers stall materials first for safety and second for maintenance. But with careful consideration, the choices don't have to be mutually exclusive. She suggests choosing materials that are easy to clean, don't have a tendency to splinter when they are kicked, and won't injure or trap the leg.
"I like walls made from poly lumber, such as the material for decking, which you can find at your local hardware and lumber yard," she says. "Many people think that hard wood is better than soft wood because it's harder to break, but soft wood is more resilient, so it tends to bend and flex. I recommend using a well-kilned (dried) pine if you want to use wood. I would use 2-by-6-inch boards instead of 1-by-6-inch boards because they will be stronger. Instead of having studs to which you nail or screw the board, choose channel steel, and then tongue and groove the lumber so the wood holds together."
This has the added benefit of easy replacement; simply pull out the broken board. You also won't have nails that back out. One of the most common stall injuries is catching an eyelid on a backed-out nail.
Trex Poly Lumber is made from reclaimed wood and plastic, and it is commonly used in decking and fencing. The two materials are combined to work with each other. The plastic protects the wood from insect and moisture damage, and the wood gives the plastic more solidity. There are no toxic chemicals, so it's safe for horses (www.Trex.com).
The Rubicon stall, by Innovative Equine Systems, has a frame that is held in place with a lumber retainer instead of welds. So if a board breaks, the panel can be taken apart for repair.
"The material we use for the stall is a high-density polyethylene (HDPE), an all plastic composite lumber," says Innovative Equine Systems owner Dennis Marion. "It's an option with the Rubicon system. It has enough give to protect a horse if he should kick the panel, but it is strong enough to hold. We also offer Brazilian redwood from sustainable forests, which is similar in strength. Both materials are maintenance-free and self-extinguishing in case of fire. If the fire source is removed, the wood will extinguish (www.equinesystems.com/rubicon.html)."
Ramm Fencing also offers the Standard, a modular customized stall, which has channels to slide the wood into (www.rammfence.com).
No matter how good our intentions, it's easy to forget to open the stall door wide enough to accommodate a horse's wide haunches. Catching a hip on a protruding door latch is another common stall injury. The spring-loaded mortise finger latch included on the stall units from Innovative Equine Systems completely eliminates protruding parts. You can also access the latch from inside the stall. Innovative Equine Systems also offers Hold-Open Door Magnets, which keep steel doors, stall fronts, and shutters wide open (www.equinesystems.com).
The Safety Release Stall Closure by Cut-Heal Animal Care was designed to break under duress, such as if a horse kicks a door in a fire situation. "It was originally created for a swing door, but it can be retrofitted to a sliding door, too," says Cut-Heal CEO John McCready. "The latch gives under 200 pounds of impact pressure; so it won't give if a horse leans on it. We know a horse may not leave his stall in case of a fire, but it does give him a fighting chance."
When considering stall footing, you need to think about whether your horse will be able to lie down and get back up without slipping or hurting himself. "Getting up from a lying position is quite an athletic accomplishment for a horse," says Hayes. "To be able to swing that heavy body up onto those spindly legs without damaging a joint or wrenching something is a real feat, so the floor must have enough purchase so he can get up without his hooves sliding."
You also need to consider the effect the footing will have on the hooves and joints. The sole of the horse's foot should be concave. The purpose of this concavity is to hold the sole above the ground so it is protected from stones. It also gives the hoof springiness, so that every time your horse bears weight on the foot, it flexes.
"That flexing helps create the secondary heart," explains Hayes. "Blood needs to get from the hooves up to the heart. If the horse has a flexible hoof, when he takes a step the used blood in the bottom of the foot will get massaged back into the heart. If you look at the way turf supports a horse, it pooches up and supports the sole of the foot. That encourages that cup (concavity) to remain. If you put a horse on hard ground or hard rubber mats or bedding, like straw, which doesn't support the cup, the foot becomes flatter and flatter. That's very common in a stall that doesn't have good footing or outside on hard ground with no grass. A flat-footed horse will have impaired circulation in his feet. He will be more susceptible to stone bruises, laminitis, and concussive injury to the moveable structure inside the foot. Support of the foot in the stall is probably the most ignored stall feature."
Health of the respiratory system is always a concern with horses housed indoors. Stall mats are commonly used to help with maintenance issues, but many of them have too many seams, which allow urine to seep down and pool underneath. A horse can pass 1-1ï¿½ gallons of urine at a time, which can overwhelm even the most absorbent of bedding, so much of the urine will drain away under the mat.
"If you have a stall floor that is porous, then urine will soak in and stay there," Hayes says. "Naturally present bacteria that feed on urea, a metabolic byproduct of protein breakdown, thrive in such anaerobic environments. They feed on the urea, and the byproduct is ammonia. There is no way to clean the floor enough to get rid of that. However, if you use a nonporous sealed mat no urine will be able to seep through, you'll have the opportunity to remove all the urine, immediately removing the opportunity for ammonia."
Joy Koch invented ComfortStall after watching her horse struggle on traditional rubber matting. "I was at a boarding facility, and they had the same standard rubber mats for 10 years," she says. "They had never removed the mats to clean underneath, and they were cracked and worn. I had a very tall, thin-skinned Thoroughbred, and I would watch him slip and slide as he tried to get up, scuffing his hocks badly in the process. My husband is in the building industry, and he suggested I go look at the products in the anti-fatigue world. I did, and I drew inspiration for the ComfortStall from that."
Koch's precision memory foam underlay is engineered from the anti-fatigue world, and it mimics the support and softness of an old forest floor. "Many veterinary hospitals use my system because it is level and doesn't undulate. Horses are also able to sleep very well on it. We've seen horses conked out like newborn foals!"
Koch's system also answers many maintenance problems, such as time and cost of shavings. Since the system includes a sealed top, which is secured to the walls with baseboard strips, urine never gets a chance to seep below the mat, negating the need to remove the mats and clean underneath. The foam underlay cuts down on the need for bedding for comfort, so less bedding is used. As a result, with fewer shavings, manure is easier to compost. "We've had customers say they now spend five minutes cleaning a stall," says Koch. The foam underlay has a lifespan of 10 years (www.comfortstall.com).
The StableComfort by Promat is a similar two-piece bedding system, but the underlay consists of crumb rubber-filled (made from recycled tires) tubular mattresses topped with loose crumb rubber and sealed with a top cover (www.stablecomfort.com).
The Lap-N-Lock mat is made from polyurea-coated overlapping stall floor tiles, which are secured together with adhesive, creating a solid mat that is impervious to liquid. The tiles are available in many colors and mimic the look of a tiled floor (www.aplusequine.com/Lapnlock.html).
Feeders and Waterers
Horses have been designed by nature to eat with their heads down. Although overhead feeders are more convenient for people, they can cause health problems for horses, says Hayes. "There are many reasons why horses should eat with their heads down," she says. "Gravity helps keep all the dust and chaff out of their noses and respiratory systems. There are all kinds of dust and hay in all feed. It's also true of horses out on grass. Their nose is right down in the grass by the pollen and dust. The horse's upper respiratory tract, from their nose to the beginning of their lungs, is lined with glands that secrete a clear mucus. When the head is down that mucus slowly rolls out. As the dust is inhaled it gets stuck in the mucus. It rolls down, the horse snorts, and it gets ejected."
ProPanel is an innovative feeding system that fits into a corner of the stall. The feeder has a large central bin for hay, and there are two bins on the side for grain and mineral licks. The corner pocket locks the hay in and makes it impossible for the horse to flip the hay out. The horse has to bore a hole into the hay as he eats. When the hay is gone the dust is left at the bottom of the feeder, where it can be removed with a hand vacuum (www.propanel.com).
The Stable Grazer is a programmable automatic feeder that dispenses at ground level and offers hay throughout the day, mimicking a grazing environment. It can dispense hay from one to six times a day. It can be used inside or out and is powered by four C batteries (www.stablegrazer.com).
Water is the most important nutrient for horses, and they require a lot to keep their guts functioning at a base level. "Horses are very picky," says Hayes. "If you give them a bucket to drink out of, the first thing they do is put their muzzle in and swish around to clean their mouth. They then take a drink and walk away. The bucket is now half full of spit and water. Then the horse will come back and realize the bucket has spit in it! Horses will always leave about four inches of water at the bottom of the bucket. They won't drink that, no matter how thirsty they are. So I like automatic drinkers that have small bowls so that the water refreshes itself often."
As with the installation of any automatic device, there will be trade offs for the convenience. Remember that it is important to monitor a horse's water intake, especially during illness or hospitalization, so many veterinarians prefer keeping water buckets in the stall to waterers. Veterinarians are also quick to point out that just because a waterer is "automatic," don't forget to make sure it's clean, operating properly, and free of debris, particularly dead rodents.
Nelson Horse Waterers come in several models, both free-standing and wall-mounted, for inside and outside use. There are several valve choices, depending upon the model: balance beam, gravity, or float-actuated. Optional heaters include a thermostatically controlled convection heater that is under the bowl, so electricity and water never mix.
With the advent of natural horsemanship, people began to question how horses are restrained. Many people have experienced a horse pulling back and have dealt with the aftermath of injuries and/or continued fear. Clinician Ted Blocker is passionate about this issue and invented a product called the Blocker Tie that might stop pull-back injuries for good.
"I've been observing horses for many years, and one thing I know is that horses and people are getting hurt from tying their horses solid," he says. "Horses don't pull back because they are being ornery. They pull back because they are prey animals with fight-or-flight instincts. You can't train that out of them ever. And if you've ever seen a horse pull back, there is fear in his eyes. So a prey animal should never be tied solid. Even if a horse has never pulled back, one day something will scare him enough to cause him to pull back. My vet in my little town in Oregon of fewer than 2,000 people euthanizes two to three horses every year because of injuries sustained from pulling back."
The Blocker is a support system rather than a restraint system. If a horse spooks, some of the rope comes out, which is enough to allow him to think twice about his fear. He can recover, and the incident is over. With the Blocker Tie, the rope never tightens, and this prevents the horse from fighting to get loose. The Blocker has three different ways to tie that allow more or less rope to come out, depending upon your horse's needs. The tie can be used anywhere you'd tie a horse, including cross-ties and inside and outside trailers (www.toklat.com and www.blockerranch.com).
Cut-Heal offers Safety Release Cross Ties that gently release through pressure. The ties are longer than the usual ties (each side is eight feet, which provides a span of 16 feet), and they are adjustable. If a horse pulls back the safety release mechanism gives with a certain amount of pressure. The Safety Release negates the need for a person to release the horse, such as with ordinary panic snaps (www.cut-heal.com).
Through simple innovation, barn equipment, stalls, and mats can help us make our horse's lives more comfortable, safe, and productive.
About the Author
Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.