Keeping Horses in the Asphalt Jungle

This city horse, a mount for the Lexington Mounted Police Unit, in Kentucky, is fortunate to have a little land on which to get out and graze.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

From vets stuck in city traffic to vexing ventilation issues, urban-dwelling horse owners deal with unique challenges.

s open land disappears and development sprawls, horse owners are having to confine their equine activities to smaller and more urban spaces. With this comes a host of challenges. Neighbors in luxury condos or cozy subdivisions aren’t as fond of the smells of hay and horse manure as horse people are. Busy roads can render riding out dangerous, and snarled traffic can make it difficult for veterinarians to get to their patients in a timely manner. 

Emily Olson, DVM, and Kelly Zeytoonian, DVM, are well-accustomed to the challenges urban horse owners handle in their day to day. Olson oversees B.W. Furlong and Associates’ ambulatory practice on densely populated Long Island, and Zeytoonian operates an ambulatory practice for Starwood Equine Veterinary Services, in Woodside, California, with many of her clients located in the traffic-riddled San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

Even though they’re separated by nearly 3,000 miles of highway, these practitioners’ clients—and those of urban-dwelling veterinarians nationwide—face similar problems with managing horses amidst the commotion of the city. 

Nearly Absent Airflow

Managing horses with minimal space takes a totally different approach than caring for them on a sprawling farm. “Things like heaves (recurrent airway obstruction, or RAO) and allergies can become more of a problem,” says Olson. “When the horse is out 12 hours a day, things like that might not matter as much, but if the horse is in 23 hours a day, small problems become magnified.”

Indeed, the ammonia and dust from small, stuffy quarters common in urban areas can be detrimental to equine airways. So designing and maintaining a properly ventilated facility (or retrofitting existing buildings to promote airflow) is key for preventing problems. 

While many West Coast urban farms are similarly stretched for space, Zeytoonian says their mild weather and winters mean more opportunities for horses to enjoy airflow via open barn doors and windows.

Open doors, windows, and fans can help keep air flowing through cramped urban quarters.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Elsewhere, winter weather only exacerbates respiratory problems because horses spend more time indoors. “I had a couple of calls this winter for horses that spend a lot of time in a barn, who have developed coughs,” says Olson. “Opening the windows and keeping air moving through a barn helps. If you’re building a barn on small acreage, keep ventilation in mind. You can also dampen the shavings and the hay to reduce dust, and keeping stalls clean to prevent ammonia (buildup) helps.”

Anita Gerami owns Chateau Stables on W. 48th Street in Manhattan, New York, near the Hudson River. She says it’s the smallest and oldest stable in Manhattan; her mother started running the business in the 1960s. Gerami grew up there and still runs the family business, offering carriage horses for weddings and funerals, rides in Central Park, pony birthday parties, and more. Her 21 charges include seven riding horses and ponies and 14 carriage horses, living in a 25-by-100-foot two-story building. 

“We have windows and skylights and exhaust fans, and we use wood shavings for our bedding because it’s absorbent and keeps the smell down,” says Gerami of her efforts to optimize ventilation and air quality.

Living in Close Quarters

Limited space is obviously one of the biggest differences between keeping horses in or near a city versus the countryside. 

To counteract the negative effects of stall confinenment (the potential for gastric ulcers, lack of natural exercise, etc.), Zeytoonian says, “the best advice I can give is to do everything possible to mimic a horse’s behavior in the wild. Wild horses spend a significant part of their day moving around—a recent study showed greater than 10 miles a day—and eating. A horse on limited acreage will need more structured exercise to make up for lack of movement in turnout, and they should always have access to clean water and quality hay, fed as frequently as possible to mimic natural grazing behavior.”

Because there’s no turnout in the Big Apple, Chateau Stables staff, for instance, hand-walk their horses around the block. Every two weeks, says Gerami, she rotates two horses at a time on and off her 23-acre farm in Pennsylvania, where they can enjoy turnout and a slower pace of life.

Maintaining fitness with arena exercise or limited turnout in a small, urban enclosure is more challenging than with extended pasture turnout that naturally involves navigation of uneven ground, ruts, and hills. Horses in the latter scenario tend to have stronger tendons and ligaments, says Olson. “I think a lot of sport horse injuries … occur in horses that lack the biomechanical strength of horses who get a lot of turnout, like an event horse in Virginia who gets a lot of turnout and does trot sets out in an open field.”

Another benefit of regular exercise, particularly in older horses, is preventing and/or alleviating pain in arthritic joints.

“The other effects of a sedentary lifestyle are similar to humans,” says Zeytoonian. “There is a higher risk of obesity, metabolic disease, and hoof issues. Lack of exercise or stimulus can also lead to the development of vices like cribbing, stall weaving, pawing, and so on.” 

Other good basic horse management approaches can help prevent additional problems that close quarters can enhance. For instance, horse owners can avoid the fungal hoof infection thrush (which some veterinarians link to stall confinement) by practicing good hygiene, such as daily hoof picking. And facility and equipment disinfection is essential for controlling disease in all management situations, but especially so in limited space. 

Also, “Providing horses with stimulus in the form of toys or slow feeders will help to reduce boredom and prevent stress-induced gastric ulcers,” says Zeytoonian.

General Maintenance 

Part of good management is a consistent maintenance and preventive care program. The horses at Chateau Stables get shod about every six to seven weeks, and because they don’t do a lot of hard work, the farrier can often reset their shoes rather than placing new ones.

“It’s rare that we have lameness problems,” says Gerami. “It’s a nice job for an older horse, and I can monitor them when they’re indoors.” 

Her veterinarian performs four wellness exams on the horses annually and ensures all vaccinations and Coggins are up-to-date.

Gerami says she keeps a folder for each horse with vaccination, farrier, and dental records to make it easy to keep all horses current. The horses’ dental care provider, who lives just over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, visits to perform routine dental care about once a year, but stops by as needed to evaluate bitting and assess new horses’ teeth, she says. 

That’s how often Olson, who has a special interest in equine dentistry, checks any horse’s teeth, urban or rural. She says that horses that aren’t grazing and are on a hay diet, however, typically show different tooth wear than those on grass. “Some horses might need to have their teeth floated every six months, while horses with regular turnout tend to be on more of a yearly schedule,” she says. “We’ve taken all of their natural tendencies away. At a foxhunting barn, for example, where all the horses live outside much of the time, the horses might go as long as three years without needing to have their teeth floated.”

Feeding Challenges

More remains stationary than the stalled horses themselves; impaction colic can also result in confinement scenarios. “Keeping your horse moving is important,” says Olson. “If you don’t have pastures you can turn horses out in an arena, hand walk, and ride them, but none of these are the same as turnout.”

Zeytoonian stresses the importance of good hay for colic prevention. “A challenge facing urban horse owners is sometimes a lack of large storage areas,” she says. “This means that hay and feed are purchased in smaller quantities, resulting in a higher turnover/transition rate. Many of my clients face a regular challenge of horses developing mild GI upset when the hay changes. They have improved this by making a slow transition between batches, stocking up on as much hay as possible, and sometimes supplementing forage pellets for hay to provide a more consistent feed source.”

To avoid sudden dietary changes, managers at Chateau Stables always buy from the same hay producer and stick to a timothy/grass mix. They also feed crimped oats and mix with a senior feed for their older residents. Every two weeks Gerami purchases 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of feed from the same Pennsylvania mill and hauls it into the city with her six-horse gooseneck trailer. “To maneuver that through Manhattan traffic and the Lincoln tunnel isn’t easy!” she says.

Strained Neighbor Relations

The sight of horses grazing nearby or the metronome sound of hooves clip-clopping on city streets might be idyllic to nonhorsey neighbors, but it’s possible that accompanying odors and flies aren’t so welcome. Generally, barn managers in urban and suburban areas must have manure removed professionally, often collecting it in dumpsters and then having it shipped away. 

“We have a private sanitation company that takes manure away six nights a week,” says Gerami. “We’re next door to a wholesale grocer on one side and Verizon telephone on the other, so we want to keep our neighbors happy. It costs $4,000 a month to haul out manure, but we’re six blocks from Times Square, so it does have to stay clean here.”

Even outside the city, quarters can be close for horses whose riders want access to certain amenities. 

Cleanliness is key when your farm is surrounded by businesses and neighbors. Many barns must hire a sanitation company to haul away manure and waste on a regular basis.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

“A trainer recently told me that per square mile, on Long Island, the horse density is higher than anywhere else,” says Olson. “The horses are really packed into the big riding schools. I’ll see barns with property the size of a postage stamp with 80 to 100 horses because everybody wants to use the indoor (arena). Every inch of space is utilized. 

“The management is a totally different thing than on a 50-acre farm,” she continues. “Disease spreads faster so manure has to be managed, and if you have five tiny turnout paddocks you decide who needs it most.”

And here’s something many urban horse owners might not think about: What little green space city dwellers do have in their yards near equestrian establishments can be dangerous if filled with ornamental plants poisonous to horses. Fencing can help keep horses away from toxic plants, and maintaining good relationships with neighbors can lead to opportunities for education about what is safe to plant within horses’ reach.

Not-So-Easy Access to Veterinary Care

Canadian Olympic dressage rider Ashley Holzer’s barn is located in Van Cortlandt Park, in The Bronx, New York. “It may be in the city, but it’s extremely well-managed,” says Olson. “But as a vet, getting to Ashley’s barn is a challenge. There’s not an equine vet who typically hangs out in the city after hours—they’re always an hour away—and even getting someone to ship the horse to the clinic can be a challenge. Rush hour can make it even more complicated. With a serious colic you’re making decisions based on more than what is in front of you: Can the vet get to the horse, or would it be quicker to ship to the vet, depending on traffic?”

Gerami agrees that traffic can be problematic. “In case of emergencies we always have a stocked medicine cabinet with Banamine and bandages and so on, and we have 24-hour stable care; someone’s always here keeping an eye on the horses.”

The same problems can be seen on the West Coast. The freeway traffic in the Silicon Valley is legendary, and Zeytoonian tries to time appointments so as not to be stuck in major commuter traffic. “We are also fortunate enough to have a number of referral hospitals in the region,” she says. “Depending upon traffic, clients can head north or south for specialized care.”  

Take-Home Message

Whether you live in the crowded city or congested suburbs, keeping your horses can present a variety of challenges. With diligent management and attention to detail, it’s possible to keep your horse happy and healthy and enjoy time at the barn no matter its zip code. 

About the Author

Amber Heintzberger

Amber Heintzberger is a journalist, photographer and award-winning author of Beyond the Track: Retraining the Thoroughbred from Racehorse to Riding Horse (Trafalgar Publishing, 2008). She lives in New York City.

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