For spring, summer and fall, I usually keep my horse out to pasture all day and all night. He has a covered shelter, and with our moderate weather during those seasons, he stays quite comfortable.
However, every year I always ask myself, "Should I keep my horse in a stall this winter, or should I keep him out to pasture?"
Are they any negative effects from keeping a horse stalled during the winter? Or am I better off keeping him outside?
There are several benefits to keeping a horse stalled, but there are also many benefits to turning a horse out to pasture.
Horses exposed to dust from feed and bedding or other irritating sources such as diesel or gas exhaust have an increased incidence of inflammatory airway disease, commonly referred to as "heaves." Therefore, it is critical that not only the barn, but each stall has good ventilation and ample air changes per minute.
Also, research has shown that stall confinement is associated with the majority of impaction colics. Of course, feeding high-concentrate diets, making sudden changes in feeding programs and limited access to clean water are also significant causes. If a horse must be confined, minimize the amount of grain fed, allowing free choice to good-quality hay, and provide the opportunity to exercise to reduce not only the incidence of colic but also the incidence of gastric ulcers. In addition, fiber digestibility increases up to 20 percent in exercised horses, which in turn decreases the incidence of impaction colics.
Also, horses are social animals and experience a number of behavioral problems when isolated and confined. They also have a strong need to exercise and can become increasingly frustrated when not allowed daily free exercise. Many behavior studies have found that the prevention of movement (exercise), social interaction with other horses and grazing causes horses to develop behavioral problems such as weaving and cribbing. They also have a tendency to misbehave during handling, training or trailer loading, which can lead to injuries to the horse as well as its handler or rider.
If you stall your horse, consider the effect this situation might have on his general health and emotional state. Explore alternatives to balance confinement time with turnout, exercise and grazing time to optimize his health and performance.
-- Dr. Thomas R. Lenz
Past President of the American Association of Equine Practitioners