Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
I wish I could claim that my experiment with group housing was motivated by a desire to ensure their health and based on current equine research, In reality, the necessity of putting the ponies in one large stall was a result of working with what we had. What we had in 2010 was a large, open space in an old-neglected stone bank barn from the pre-Civil War.
We just moved to a small farm in southeast Pennsylvania and wanted to bring Cupcakes and Falcon home.
Our barn had walls, windows with no glass and a roof. It was barely functional. My family was told by me that they were ponies and tough. We set up nylon stall guards on the doors of a large stone room that used to house cows and pigs. As it rained outside, we laid down bedding and brought in water. Cupcake and Falcon glanced at each other, and then they started to eat.
My husband assured me that it was “just like a big run in.” My daughter, the hunter/jumper rider, was less optimistic. She said, “This is strange.” “When are we allowed to put in stalls?”
We never put those stalls in. Because it worked so well, what started out as a temporary arrangement was made permanent. Our ponies behaved better on the ground than in the rings and were more calm. A growing body of research is now able to explain why.Research shows that horses living in individual boxes stalls is not the best thing for their mental health.
The box stalls may look cozy and familiar to us, but they are not comfortable for horses. They are too small and isolated for herd animals that need to move around. We know that horses benefit mentally and physically from constant pasture turnout with a friendly herd. Researchers have found that if full turnout is not possible, a few minor changes can make a stall a more welcoming and healthy place for horses.
What the research says regarding horse stalls
A study at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), England, provides some of the strongest evidence regarding the effects of confinement on horses’ well-being. Researchers measured 16 school horses’ physiological and behavioral stress responses when they were placed in four housing situations over five days.
* “Group housing, full communication”–four horses were placed in an outdoor paddock, and allowed to have full physical, visual, and auditory contact.
* “Paired housing with full contact” – horses were housed in open spaces within barns adjacent to single-box stalls. The horses were paired together and had visual and audio contact with one another.
* “Single housing, semi-contact”–horses were kept in individual box stalls with walls low enough to allow visual, auditory and tactile communication with their neighbors and they were also able to see horses stabled nearby.
* “Single housing, No contact”: Horses were kept in separate boxes with solid walls and had no contact with other horses.
Each horse was monitored throughout the study period for stress levels. This was done by measuring eye temperature and fecal corticosterone metabolism, which indicate adrenal activity. Kelly Yarnell, PhD of NTU, was the head of the study. She found that horses kept in isolated housing (individual boxes stalls) showed high adrenal activity.
Yarnell adds, “This is an important outcome as physiological changes are something that the horse can’t mask in the same way they can with behavioral signs.” “Chronic, repetitive activation of stress can have negative effects on the reproductive, immune, and digestive systems as well as horses’ mental well being.”
Although horses are able to adapt to living conditions that are less than ideal, there is increasing evidence that it is time to revamp the basic box stall.
Switzerland’s horsekeepers are already certified: The Swiss government adopted equine protection laws in 2008 in response to Yarnell’s research. These laws mandate minimum box stall sizes and provide for opportunities or restrictions on social interaction between horses. Many Swiss equine businesses have renovated their barns in order to allow horses to have contact with each other over the years.
NTU has also made changes to its barn designs that are horse-friendly. “We at NTU could observe that group housing was beneficial. We were able to prove that horses who live in housing with social opportunities also have lower physiological stress responses by using physiological measures. Yarnell says that although we had previously concluded that it was better for horses, physiological tests proved otherwise. “While I sympathize with the concerns of horse owners who prefer to keep their horses alone, I can’t ignore the results of the research at NTU and elsewhere as an equine welfare researcher.”
America’s stall-keeper horses
The United States has not seen much change in horse barns or box stalls in the past 100 years. Although horses are rarely kept in complete isolation, stall confinement with limited access is still very common. This is because behavioral issues, respiratory problems, and other health problems that can be associated with this lifestyle are still quite common. Why?
There are many reasons for this, not least the cost and disruption of retrofitting or replacing structures that have been around for decades. Part of the reason may lie in resistance to change, which is a common reality in all types of businesses. There are practical considerations that must be considered, particularly for sport and show operations, which need to protect valuable animals against injuries and even skin blemishes.
Yarnell recognizes that horses living together might injure or jostle with each other, but she believes that the risks are outweighed by the many benefits shared by horses. She says, “I am aware that an injury to a horse can result in a horse missing a competition season. This could have long-term and negative consequences.” “But, as a scientist I would like to compare the incidences of injury from turnout with other horses to the incidences of injury sustained during competition.”
She says that common sense adjustments can make a shared living arrangement workable in many horsekeeping situations. Yarnell states that one of the biggest problems in trying to implement such a management system in a barn is that they house many unfamiliar animals whose owners have different time-scales and systems. In many cases, compromise is necessary. It is beneficial to have as many social contacts as possible. The evidence is growing and will hopefully encourage a horse-friendly approach in housing.
How to improve horse stall life
Based on research, what is the ideal? The ideal situation is a full turnout in a large pasture with multiple hay feeding stations. There should also be a communal barn or runin shed to provide shelter from the sun, bugs, wind, and cold. Shelter and pasture must be large enough for horses to roam freely. A minimum run-in shed size for a three-horse team would be 12 x 36 feet.Housing small groups of horses in larger enclosure may be preferable to individual stalls.
Research suggests that even minor changes to the horse’s stall confinement can have positive results on their health and happiness.
Many Swiss horse farms have made barns more comfortable for their horses by removing the bars between enclosures and lowering the height of stall walls. Yarnell stresses that this measure can only be considered “provided the horses live in close proximity.”
Another popular arrangement in Europe is to house compatible horses in pairs in double-sized barns. The Spanish Riding School also uses group barns for its broodmares. Mares are only allowed into private boxes stalls at foaling. Horse stress is significantly reduced by maximizing group turnout hours, reducing solo time in stalls, and other measures such as minimizing solo stall time.
Yarnell and other experts don’t minimize the importance compatibility in group housing arrangements. She says that the horses in NTU’s social housing are carefully selected based on their past experiences and observations of their relationships. “Horses can be herd animals and will have disagreements so it’s important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. When housing is needed, horses that get along well when they are turned out together in their paddock may make the best group housing candidates.
Yarnell says it is important to provide hay at multiple locations as well as implement other traditional management techniques that are commonly used to maintain peace in herds. This also applies, she says, when adding new herd members–introductions must be done carefully and incrementally, with horses allowed to get to know one another over a fence for several days before sharing a space.
My little farm was eventually home to Strider, a third pony. This forced us to reconsider our communal housing arrangements. Due to the layout and space of our barn, Strider could not be allowed to occupy the same space as Falcon and Cupcake. We ended up creating a separate space for our third pony, despite our accidental success with our group stall. Based on the lessons learned from the other two, Strider needed a space that would be both psychological and physical. We built a stall that was 12 feet by 14 feet. It has no bars, two open windows, and half-walls to allow Strider to reach out and see his fellow horses. Our three ponies make a happy, harmonious herd with as many turnouts as possible in every weather condition.
About Nancy Moffitt: Nancy Moffitt, vice president and board member of the Freedom Horse Show Series, is a Chester County, Pennsylvania-based horsewoman, writer, editor, and judge. She is vice president and board member for the Freedom Horse Show Series. She also judges open and schooling show.