As the weather gets colder and we start to put on layers and stay inside, it is easy to assume that our horses would prefer to be inside a heated building, in the comfort of a deep bedded stall. Sometimes we keep horses inside for our own convenience—they can’t get dirty, don’t take as long to catch, or can cool down before being put outside—but sometimes it is done from the honest conviction that the horse would prefer it that way.
Many people know about the evidence to the contrary, that horses tend to develop abnormal behaviour when kept inside, such as cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and aggression. However, we’ve also heard that providing the horse with a toy or two and a hay net makes his life in the box stall a pampered one.
These are well-intentioned attempts to make the box nicer for the horse, but their effect is quite limited. Here are the facts about what these ‘enrichments’ actually do for the horse. I end with practical suggestions for housing that more closely suits the horse’s needs.
We all want our horses to have a good life. That’s why we buy them treats and new brushes and fit their saddles and get blankets—and, all to often, bring them inside for the winter. Wanting them to have a good life is equivalent to wanting them to have good welfare. Welfare refers to quality of life—how easily a creature is able to adapt to its environment (Waran, 2002). If it is difficult or entirely impossible to completely adapt to the environment, the animal has poor welfare. If it can adapt and fit in, there is good welfare.
When horses show stereotypical behaviour (repetitive, abnormal behaviours like cribbing), aggression towards humans, behaviours caused by stress, or lack of engagement in the environment, these are attempts by the horse to cope with an environment that it doesn’t easily fit into. The presence of these four criteria can be used to assess welfare, and were used by Ruet et al (2019) in their study of housing horses in boxes.
It is easy to see how saddles illustrate this. A horse can never adapt its back to a poorly fitting saddle, and is likely to show aggression when it is put on and stress related behaviours when being ridden, so the saddle compromises its welfare. For a well-fitting saddle, however, the horse is adapted already, and its welfare is improved.
The same comparison may be made for any situation. Let’s see how it applies to box stalls.
Enriching the Box
The goal of enrichment is to make animals in an unnatural environment more likely to display the natural behaviours they would engage in in a natural environment. Bulens et al (2013) note that the most effective enrichment is providing something for the horse to eat, as 50-70% of their time is spent eating normally. In their study they used a bottle filled with sand and suspending from the ceiling, and a rope similarly suspended for the horse to play with. They found that the enriching effects of these objects were similar to other studies that looked at commercially available horse toys. Any beneficial effect was quite limited because they did not allow the horse to increase normal behaviour (locomotion, and interaction with other horses).
Ruet et al (2019) examined 12 factors in the lives of stabled horses: sex, age, time spent in the box, whether there was a window into the next stall, the bedding type, how much feed was given, how much concentrated feed was given, what discipline the horse was used in, the level of performance, the number of competitions, hours spent working per week, and lunging or walking time per week. Only three of these factors exhibited a positive change in the horse’s behaviour: straw bedding seemed to reduce aggression towards humans, a box with a window also reduced aggression, and less concentrated feed reduced repetitive abnormal behaviours, especially cribbing.
In short, enrichments weren’t as enriching as originally thought.
The Effect of Turn Out
Unresponsiveness to the environment, no longer showing interest in events or happenings around it, increases the more time the horse spends inside. This is shown by a withdrawn posture, where the head is level with the back, the ears do not move much, and the horse just does nothing (Ruet et al, 2019). While there is a place for horses to rest in a posture similar to this, this refers to an abnormal amount of time spent in this posture.
Horses that show stressed behaviours in the box, like pacing, calling out, or holding an alert posture for long periods are most likely to begin to slip into unresponsiveness, suggesting that these behaviours may be comparable to anxiety and depression (Ruet et al, 2019).
These behaviours are all reduced or non-existent when horses are studied at pasture with social interaction and space to move freely; to prevent this downward slide into poor welfare, avoid keeping a horse inside (Mills and Clarke, 2002).
Surviving Stall Rest
Horses that receive some turnout display the four indicators less often, showing an improvement in welfare, or at least a reduction in the deterioration of welfare caused by living inside (Ruet et al, 2019).
However, sometimes it is absolutely necessary to keep a horse confined inside, such as in stall rest. In this situation, using anything that may help the horse cope is advisable (Mills and Clarke, 2002). Allowing contact with another horse, providing a variety of food and a constant supply of fibre, keeping the lights on, and anything to keep the horse interested in the environment through sounds and sights can all help to reduce the negative welfare implications of forced stall rest.
We Live in Canada
What about when it is cold? The thermoneutral zone of horses, where there is no increased effort to maintain internal body temperature, is between -15 and 10 degrees Celsius in still air, and between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius under more normal environmental conditions (Morgan, 1998). Below 5 degrees the horse’s metabolism must increase to maintain internal temperature (Morgan, 1998). Providing continuous access to food to support the increase in metabolism along with adequate shelter is sufficient for the horse to maintain its internal temperature and body condition score over winter without compromising welfare (Mejdell and Bøe, 2005).
Horses were designed to live outside and express normal behaviour, to move freely in groups of other horses, to eat for most of the day, to avoid fear and distress, and to be able to avoid unpleasant or painful situations. While these ‘five freedoms’ have been criticized by some, they are still a good general guide (Mills and Clarke, 2002). The four factors used in Ruet et al’s (2019) study are also not all-encompassing and other factors and indicators should also be studied.
If your horse is quiet in the box, is he ‘good to stable’ or is he withdrawing from his environment?
If your horse chews any exposed wood, is he ‘trying to annoy you’ or expressing that his normal behaviours are being frustrated?
If your horse is vigilant and pacing in his box, is he ‘full of beans’ or on the road through anxiety to depression?
If your horse shows aggression towards you, is he being ‘naughty’ or coping with a suboptimal environment by letting the frustration out—towards you?
If you have the option, are you going to keep your horse inside and compromise his welfare, or let him be a horse as much as possible?
Bulens, A; Van Beirendonck, S; Van Thielen, J; and Driessen, B. (2013) The enriching effect of non-commercial items in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 143:46–51
Mejdell, CM and Bøe, KE. (2005) Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 85: 307–308.
Mills, DS and Clarke, A. (2002) Housing, Management, and Welfare. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
Morgan, K. (1998) Thermoneutral Zone and Critical Temperatures of Horses. J. therm. Biol. 23:1 pp. 59-61
Ruet, A; Lemarchand, J; Parias, C; Mach, N; Moisan, M-P; Foury, A; Briant, C; and Lansade, L. (2019) Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare. Animals 9:621
Waran, N. (2002) Preface. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.