Health

Stall Confinement

What's better for horse health? To stall or not to stall?

Cold weather is here, and with it comes the annual discussion between my wife and me on whether or not to stall our horses at night. My wife and I are both veterinarians, but we have completely different views on the benefits vs. consequences of stalling our horses.

I grew up on a farm in central Missouri where our horses were pastured year round unless they were injured or foaling. My wife grew up in a small city in southern Oklahoma where her horses were stalled most of the time with daily turnout in a paddock. She believes they are healthier and happier stalled; I believe they’re better off pastured. Of course, I always lose the debate, but the discussion continues every year.

Like equine welfare, our view of what housing options are best for our horses are based on our life experiences and information we’ve gathered over time. Many horse owners prefer to stall their horses to protect them from inclement weather or prevent the horse’s hair coat from bleaching out. Stalled horses are able to eat without other horses interfering, which is especially important for young, timid or geriatric horses. Confinement keeps the horse convenient and ready to ride, as opposed to pastured horses, which might take longer to catch. And finally, the horse might be recovering from an injury or could be a stallion that can’t be safely turned out with other horses.

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So if you are showing horses, standing stallions or just believe horses are healthier and happier stalled, here are a few things you should consider to keep them content and healthy.

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. Most stalls have grills that allow air flow through the upper half of the stall, but have solid walls below that trap dust and stale air. This is especially critical for foals that are shorter and confined to the dead air space of the lower half of the stall or horses that are sleeping.

To minimize dust, use high-quality, low-dust bedding and hay. Clean stalls of manure and urine-soaked bedding twice daily if possible. Minimize activities that stir up dust, such as sweeping, raking or riding. Consult with a barn design expert to make sure you have an effective stall ventilation program, as merely placing fans above stalls seldom provides good ventilation.

Recent 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, allow 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 impaction colics.

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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 behavior 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 horses, consider the effect this situation might have on their general health and emotional state. Explore alternatives to balance confinement time with turnout, exercise and grazing time to optimize their health and performance.

Dr. Thomas R. Lenz is a trustee of the American Horse Council, is chairman of AQHA’s research committee and is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.