Mention the word “stable” and most people will conjure up images of green pastures surrounding a serene barn where horses lean over their dutch doors, taking in the fresh air and peaceful surroundings. And while that’s certainly a lovely goal, the truth is, plenty of our horses will live much of their lives lives in more suburban, if not completely urban, environments. Does your horse live in a barn where turn-out time is limited, or non-existent? Or does your horse stay inside for health and safety reasons? If so, it’s important to take special measures to keep your stabled horse healthy and happy.
Respiratory Health is a primary concern for stabled horses. A study by Michigan State University has shown that horses inside barns may be inhaling endotoxins at a rate eight times higher than pastured horses. These endotoxins, which originate in manure, hay, and straw, can create lung inflammation. Coughing and increased mucus production from lung inflammation can really slow down a performance horse, and it’s especially harmful for horses who might already have lung issues, such as heaves. The answer is not just a well-ventilated stable, but a clean well-ventilated stable, with frequently cleaned stalls, and using hay and straw free of dust.
Digestive health also takes a hit when a horse lives primarily indoors. The horse’s gut, made for constant grazing, doesn’t handle the on-again/off-again digestive cycle created by being fed several large meals a day. The horse’s digestive system is overloaded by the meal, and the resulting rapid fermentation of carbohydrates can cause gastric ulcers and other health issues. Get your stabled horse back on a natural cycle with as much roughage fed throughout the day and night as possible — use a slow feeder or hay-net to slow an over-enthusiastic eater. If you can, break up grain feedings into multiple small meals throughout the day. Ask your veterinarian if a supplement or prescription for ulcer treatment and prevention is advisable — it’s thought as many as 90% of racehorses and more than half of show horses suffer from ulcers.
Working, warm-ups, and cool-downs take on extra meaning with the stabled horse. Leaping up for a run after sitting at your desk all day will spell bad news for your muscles, ligaments, and tendons — your horse is no different. Exercise should be daily, and start out with long, careful warm-ups. Look for suppling exercises that will stretch your horse’s pent-up muscles into working condition, and spend twenty or thirty minutes on your warm-up before getting into hard, demanding work. Your cool-down should be just as thorough, with a long walk to cool the muscles down, avoiding stiffening once the horse goes back to his stall.
Allow ample socializing by giving your horse access to other equines. Much of the stress for stabled horses can be attributed to their isolation — horses are herd animals and take comfort in being part of a group. If you can’t turn your horses out together, consider short partition walls (when appropriate) between stalls, or stall bars, to allow your horses to socialize. As a last resort, if you can’t offer your horse an equine friend, it might be time to look for another species: horses have found companionship with goats, donkeys, and other smaller animals which can be added to a barn with a minimum of cost and extra space.
While keeping horses outside is the ideal situation, it’s not always possible. With a little extra work, stabled horses can be kept happy and their stress kept to a minimum.