Equine HusbandryBack to Stable Stress



Historical view

Current Establishment practices

The modern custom of housing horses in isolation is traditional in horse husbandry and difficult to change. Keeping horses in boxes, with no possibility for normal movement, is in no way a horse-adapted one and can result in disease of the musculoskeletal system and the respiratory tract, as well as behavioural problems (Kreimeier and Bockisch 1996). 

There have been two studies on how racehorses in particular are kept in this country.  Jones et al (1987) in the south west of Great Britain carried out one study.  It was discovered that the “typical” racehorse is kept in a loose box, bedded on straw and remains indoors while the stable is cleaned.  It is given a floor area of 12m2 and shares its air space of 39m3 with seven other horses and there are 6.6 air changes/hour but this is reduced to 2.2 if the top door is closed.

Townson et al (1995) studies racehorses in Ireland and found that they were bedded on straw, fed unsoaked hay and remains indoors while being bedded down and groomed.  The horse is given a floor area of 13.4m2 and has an air space of 42.6m3, and the air changes/hour is 1.8 if the top door is closed.  Jones et al (1987) decided that racehorse stables in use today are based on designs that are worse overall than the best available in the 19th century and Piotrowski (1992) found that traditional methods of keeping horses were shown to be inadequate. Today there is a trend in housing racehorses in American barns (Townson et al 1995).

Lund et al (1993) carried out a survey on stable conditions in South Africa that are similar to British ones.  The results showed that managers did not pay attention to practices that would reduce dust in stables.  It was discovered that in most stables the bedding was changed and the horses were groomed whilst they were in the stable.  Barn style stables are replacing open fronted stables, but have been found to have poor ventilation and poor air quality.  Many trainers shut the top doors of stables some of which had no ventilation openings.

Non-infectious respiratory disease has a high incidence in North America and Europe but almost is nil in Australia (Robinson 1998).  This is thought to be because of the difference in the housing systems as horses in the northern hemisphere are kept in stables more, but this may also be due to the fact that Australia is blessed with an absence of Equine Influenza.

 The multi-room run system with time controlled access to hay and concentrates is better than individual boxes and is characterised by the separation of resting and feeding areas.  Both areas are connected to the run, to which horses have free access (Kreimeier and Bockisch 1996).

 Very little has changed in the design of equine housing since the turn of the 20th century (Jones et al 1987).  There are 3 basic designs of stabling for horses:

1.      Stalls - where the horse remains tethered.

2.      Loose boxes - come in different sizes and layout depends on the yard.  The stable door opens outside.

3.      Barns - Again come in many different sizes and numbers but the stables are “all under one roof”.

How we got here

Those who have woken up on a cold wet winter’s morning will know how depressing it can be to walk to see your horse with a torch in one hand and a bucket of feed in the other.  Horses who are out at pasture during the day, are rugged up and put out into the field.  Owners go to work or to school and return 8 hours later to find a wet bedraggled horse waiting at the gate to be fed again.  They are returned to their mucked out stable and stay there the night till the next morning.

Those horses whose owners do not have access to pasture have to remain in their stables all day and life can be very boring and lonely.  Because humans anthropromorphise we think the horse would prefer to be in a stable where it is dry and sheltered from the wind, rather than out in the wet field.  Whether this is right or not, the horse is not given a choice. 

Different types of owners

There are all sorts of people who own horses, some for pleasure, some for competition, some for work and some for business.  There are the owners who only have one or two horses to those with large establishments and lots of horses.  The needs of the horse are always the same but the needs of the owners vary greatly.

 The one or two horse owner generally has the horse’s best interests at heart but may be constrained to the rules of the establishment where the horse is kept and the amount of pasture available.  There is a shortage of pasture in this country and as a result horses are finding themselves in stables 24 hours a day for the convenience of humans than benefit of occupants.

Why stables?

Simply because it is easier for us. As mentioned the main reason for stabling horses apart from convenience for the owner is to control the horse’s diet and exercise programmes.  There is no way of measuring what the horse at pasture eats.  The other major reason for stabling horses is protection from weather and other horses.

People believe that stables reduce the amount of physical work that they have to do when looking after horses and in addition such buildings generally provide a pleasant outlook to any property.  It is the human demands that create such environments.  Some horses have to be severely restricted in movement as part of strict veterinary treatment.  

Gray (1994) gives the following reasons for stabling horses:

Control exercise fully,

Control diet,

Prevent injury,

Simplify grooming,

Limit disease.

There is an argument for stabling horses to control infection and it is claimed that allergic reactions are caused by allergens and not by the stable.  However infectious conditions are affected by poor stabling, where spore-laden atmospheres exacerbate symptoms.  The fear of propagating infection has led to stables being excessively ventilated, which can be a health risk in itself, because the dilution of a virus by increasing the airflow, favours other infections.  Keeping horses in “deep litter” beds is now thought of to be bad for the horse’s health, but a lot of stables still manage horses in this way. 

The time a horse spends out of the stable is related to the discipline for which it is being trained and in dressage and eventing horses the time spent in a stable is correlated with an increased risk of abnormal behaviour (McGreevy et al 1995a).  Endurance horses often compete while being maintained at grass, while it is considered important to control the amount of roughage eventers consume.  Dressage horses are thought to be less responsive to their handlers if kept at grass.  Hypothetical recommendations taken from intensively housed livestock have been used as the basis for many accepted practices for equine stables.  However the housing requirements and performance demands of horses are different from those of food producing farm animals (Clark 1987).


Effects of housing on health

The effect of housing environment on the welfare of stabled horses is an important issue, and there is particular concern with respiratory diseases in the case of the athletic horse. Dust, noxious gases, bacteria, viruses and other infectious agents are present in stables and their effect on the horse’s respiratory function is considerable.  There are important principles and processes by which livestock housing affects animal health, welfare and productivity.  Gray (1994) stated “There are types of stables from which it is impossible to produce healthy horses to race; but change to more ideal conditions and infection disappears, spontaneously without drugs”.

The common practice of soaking hay has been carried out to help prevent the onset of respiratory diseases. Warr and Petch (1992) studied the nutritional quality of soaked hay and found that soaking hay for 12 hours had a significant impact on its content of water-soluble carbohydrates and nitrogenous compounds.  Soaking times of 30 minutes or less led to similar losses in water-soluble carbohydrate but an insignificant loss of crude protein.  Clark (1987) demonstrated that the duration of soaking is not as important as thorough wetting in terms of reducing respirable challenge. It was concluded that to minimise nutrient loss whilst significantly reducing respiratory challenge, a 5 or 10 minute soak is the most desirable strategy.

Other studies regarding stabled horses are Casanueva et al (1995) who studied mites associated with stabled horses that might cause respiratory problems or allergies. Appel et al (1995) studied the death of a horse from cranial injuries sustained in a collision with the crossbeam of a stable door.  This highlights the need to establish minimum height requirements for stable and horsebox doors and ceilings.

American type barns have proved to have poor ventilation by current standards because the openings are too small (Wathes 1989), and therefore are an unacceptable way of keeping horses, yet they are still being built.  Greater emphasis should be placed on ventilation rates in stables, with at least 4-air changes/hour being desirable to minimise the air concentration of possible airborne pathogens (Magnusson 1991). Unhealthy housing climates, lack of social contact and exercise and overfeeding lead to sickness and accidents (Piotrowski 1992).  Many stables are built without due consideration of the housing needs of the horse, especially in regards to ventilation and the management of airborne dust particles (Lund et al 1993).  Clark (1992) stated that horses could still be exposed to dangerous levels of airborne contaminants in the best ventilated stables. 

Clark (1994) showed how the hygiene and physical environment of a stable can affect the welfare and well being of a horse;

1.    Increasing the magnitude of challenges from infectious micro-organisms, parasites, noxious gases and allergenic or irritant particles,

2.    Altering the horse’s systemic or local resistance,

3.      Increasing the risk of physical injury, and,

4.      Failing to meet the horse’s behavioural needs.

Dixon (1992) described how horses in Holland are permanently stabled and on some yards over 75% of the horses may have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). 


Effects of housing on behaviour

Horses have changed little behaviourally since domestication and this has led to conflicts with the evolutionary process. Confining a horse is against all its normal habits.  Horses have a fear of small spaces and stables are completely contrary to nature. There are two features that make stables less than an ideal home for horses:

1.      Stabled horses spend less than 12 hours a day feeding,

2.      Lack of complete social contact with other horses, (Over a partition is not enough) (Cudderford 1995).

There is a lot of speculation regarding exactly how putting horses in boxes affects their behaviour. The information available on stabling is empirical, relying on observation and experiment, not on theory.  Mal et al (1991) studied mares kept in confined and isolated environments and showed they had greater motivation for movement and performance of a greater number of activities than those maintained on pasture. It was found that box walking was particularly common among endurance horses (McGreevy et al 1995a). The effect of bedding type has a significant effect on the behaviour of a horse (McGreevy 1995b).  Horses do not prefer straw to wood shavings as a place to lie (Hunter and Houpt 1989).

It is important for management systems in the future to address the need for the horse to exist as a social animal. We now see stable designs that allow neighbouring horses to see and touch one another, for instance through bars and grilles between stables.