Empty fields, captive horses: Why stabling can be harmful to your horse

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Stall confinement is a significant cause of ulcers, especially when forage is not available around the clock.
Stall confinement is a significant cause of ulcers, especially when forage is not available around the clock.

Driving through Kentucky recently, I passed breathtaking farms – acres and acres of meticulously manicured pastures, lined with black Kentucky-style four-board fences that seemed to travel for miles. What struck me, however, was their barrenness. 

Placed high on mounds in the distance were spectacular barns – horse “hotels” where horses reside – some just during the day, some for most of the time.

While this may be convenient for the horse owner, standing in a small area for hours on end (even if part of it is outdoors) takes its toll on a horse’s mental and physical health, to such a great extent, that it dramatically diminishes his quality, and length, of life.

Horses need to move.

Ever tried staying in a small room for most of the day? And we like cozy places! Horses do not! Their very survival depends on their ability to flee at a moment’s notice from dangers, real or perceived. Trapped, they eventually succumb to their fate, appearing as though they are accepting and perhaps even appreciating their solitude. But the stress takes its toll on their immune system and hormonal responses, leading to a vast variety of health issues.

All body systems, including cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, neuromuscular, and skeletal systems depend on exercise to remain sound. If the horse cannot be ridden every day, many will benefit from simply being lunged or worked in a round pen. This is to provide an opportunity for your horse to move and get the blood flowing. But don’t do this excessively. Running around in circles for prolonged periods of time is unnatural and can be detrimental physically and mentally, causing frustration and inducing a stress response. Allowing for more natural forms of movement is the best way to provide needed exercise.

All horses benefit from free exercise by walking around in a large pasture (or large dry lot with hay available).

Consider these potential problems

Obesity. The reason is obvious — too little activity, combined with too many calories. Reducing calories can be accomplished by minimizing or even removing concentrates from the diet, but forage must never be restricted. Doing so starts a hormonal cascade that actually keeps the horse overweight.

Porous bones. Skeletal bones are made of living, dynamic tissue that is constantly being subjected to changes in mineral and protein content. The horse’s large size helps him build bone mass simply by moving. Inactivity can make horses’ bones porous, potentially leading to fractures when only a slight demand is placed on them.

Poor feet and hair coat. Inadequate blood circulation reduces the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the extremities and hair follicles. Don’t be fooled by the shiny coat that results from added dietary fat – that is simply a result of more oil secretion from the skin’s sebaceous glands. Truly healthy hair and hooves require exercise to delivery necessary nutrients.

Digestive disorders. Horses allowed to graze on pasture 24/7 rarely develop ulcers. Stall confinement is a significant cause of this painful condition, especially when forage is not available around the clock. In addition, digestive tract muscles suffer from lack of activity. A steady, consistent supply of forage will help exercise these muscles.

Physical activity increases blood circulation and stimulates gastrointestinal motility, keeping the entire digestive tract in good shape, lessening the chance of torsions, impactions, and intussusceptions that lead to colic. Fiber digestion is also improved. What is so disheartening is that within two weeks of changes to stall confinement (such as experienced by horses transported to training facilities), the vast majority of horses will develop ulcers and more than half of them will develop colon/cecal impactions. 

The way you can determine how much hay to feed at night is to make certain that there is some hay left over in the morning
The way you can determine how much hay to feed at night is to make certain that there is some hay left over in the morning

Mental well-being. The stress of stall confinement and isolation often leads to unattractive behaviors, consistent with trapping any animal – weaving, stall-walking and circling, pawing, wall-kicking, chewing, head-bobbing, self-biting, and even cribbing (which is more than just a bad habit – it is generally done to alleviate the pain of an ulcer). Horses are social animals, requiring time with each other in a herd environment to provide protection, comfort, and mutual grooming.

Metabolic impacts. Sedentary horses lose muscle mass and can become insulin resistant. Muscle uses a large amount of glucose for energy; the more muscle mass your horse has, the more glucose transporters are produced, leading to increased insulin sensitivity. Therefore, exercise not only burns calories, but reduces insulin resistance. Exercise also helps reduce leptin resistance.

Fitness decline. Reduced exercise results in loss of muscle and bone mass which significantly impacts the horse’s fitness level and performance ability. Researchers at Virginia Intermont College found that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness and even more interestingly, pastured horses were able to maintain the same fitness level as horses who were stalled and exercised five days per week.

Growth retardation. A growing horse requires exercise for cartilage and overall bone and joint development. Restricting exercise can result in injury, under-conditioned joints, contracted tendons, deformed legs, and osteopathic disorders.

Accelerated aging. When the immune system is suppressed, the horse becomes more susceptible to catching infections from other horses, developing insect-borne diseases, and exhibiting allergic responses to the environment. Weariness from confinement increases oxidative stress, resulting in free radicals that damage healthy tissues, inhibit repair, and alter DNA. What we once thought as age-related conditions such as degenerative arthritis, and equine Cushing’s disease, now appear in horses at far younger ages. 

Possible solutions

We need to think “outside the box” (pun intended). We need to find ways to offer our horses a safe environment that encourages movement and grazing time, as well as respects their innate physiological need for forage flowing through the digestive tract at all times.

One innovative approach is to transform an area into a “Paddock Paradise” where horses seek out new batches of hay while walking from place to place. This concept is quite versatile, allowing for even small sizes of land.

Relaxing standards that require keeping a horse stalled so he will stay clean and well-groomed, in favor of having a happier, more naturally kept horse will cut back on maintenance requirements and allow more time for enjoying your horse. Think of creative ways to let your horse outside to be with other horses.

If some stall time is unavoidable, be sure to provide at least two places where hay is always provided. If your horse tends to eat very quickly, start by providing hay free-choice. Once he gets the message that he will not run out of hay, he will start to slow down his eating and be more relaxed. Commercially available “slow feeders” are a good option for many horses, if they are introduced gradually, to avoid frustration.

Shelter from harsh weather is a must. This can best be accomplished by offering your horse the option to make choices. Barn stalls with open gates that can be entered at will, allow your horse to decide what is most comfortable.

Bottom line

Confining a horse to a stall or small outdoor area without the ability to exercise leads to an animal who is mentally stressed and physically limited. Exercise, walking, grazing, socializing, and freedom to flee from perceived dangers are essential parts of what makes your horse, a horse.

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Juliet M Getty

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. has been called a "pioneer in free choice forage feeding," and her articles and interviews often appear in national and international publications. » Read Juliet's profile

2 thoughts on “Empty fields, captive horses: Why stabling can be harmful to your horse

  • June 7, 2018 at 11:06 am
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    Excellent article by Dr. Getty! Horses should be given as much natural freedom and natural habitat as possible for a quality life.

    Reply
  • June 8, 2018 at 12:43 pm
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    how true it is. My horses thrives on been outside most of the year. 29,25,13 and 9 years old

    Reply

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