Keeping Stalled Horses Happy with Social Stimulation

by Matt

Most of the horses in today’s modern world spend at least some of their time in stalls. Whether it’s due to land constraints and limited pasture, to keep a working horse handy and clean during the day, or to protect valuable horses from injuring themselves during unsupervised playtime, stalling horses is a reality we all face. At the same time, as horsemen we are tasked with keeping our horses healthy and happy–and we know that social interaction with other horses is important to this mission. How do you keep your stalled horses happy? Providing social stimulation is a big piece of this puzzle.

There are many ways architectural design can offer answers to this ongoing problem. Your future barn can be built to provide as much socialization between stalls as possible, or you can retrofit your current barn to offer some respite from the boredom of old-fashioned solid wooden walls.

Partial partitions are a great way to allow horses frequent interaction with their stable-mates. More common in Europe, where stall partitions frequently cap at five feet, shorter walls between horse stalls can allow horses to physically see their neighbors (promoting a feeling of safety and relaxation for these herd animals) as well as touch noses, use body language to communicate, and maybe even groom one another. After an initial “getting to know you” period, all but the most territorial horses usually enjoy the companionship of having neighbors within sight and reach.

Grills in the stall partitions are another way to give horses some visual reassurance they’re not alone, without quite the same access as a short partition. You can go as far as to put bars along the entire stall wall, like a stall front with bars on the top half, or just add a window with bars or a grill between the stalls. If you have horses frequently moving in and out of stalls and the constant change doesn’t allow for neighbors to get used to one another, this halfway approach to a partial partition is a good way to add social stimulation to your stalled horses’ lives.

Open front stalls, which dispense with the front stall bars altogether, make a great retrofit idea for barns with solid stall partitions. Taking down the bars or grill and giving your horse a wider range of vision is a great way to allow them to take in the sights of the barn aisle, look outside, and visit with neighbors in the next stall. Of course, your aisle needs to be wide enough to allow you, your clients, and your students to safely walk horses down the center while horses are leaning out of their stalls. Still, horses tend to get used to sharing their space when they’re allowed to lean out of the stalls better than when they are shut in by bars, so with time, you might find everyone adjusts and lives together peacefully.

Gossip gates, dutch doors, and other open door plans are a small, but hugely important, contribution to providing social stimulation. Even if safety concerns keep your stalls largely closed up and your horses separated, at least allowing horses to look outside of their stall, see other horses, and keep up with the activity in the barn goes a long way towards keeping these social animals feeling safe and relaxed.

Other ways to provide extra socializing for your stalled horses include adding runs to your stalls, which allow your horses to chat and groom one another over the fence.

No matter how you choose to provide social opportunities for your stalled horses, you’ll be enhancing their lives by offering them a “closer-to-nature” lifestyle! Making horses happy: isn’t that what it’s all about?

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