I think we can all accept that keeping a horse stabled for hours at a time isn’t natural and it probably isn’t something horses are happy about. But there are lots of reasons horses need to be stabled for longer periods of time. But just how happy is your horse in their stable? And does your stable meet your horse’s needs?
What do horses need to be happy?
It can be really hard to spot a depressed horse and we usually assume that if horses are having their basic needs met, then they will be happy. Afterall, horses aren’t as complicated as humans. But a horses basic needs are more than just having food and water! There are pillars what need to be met and research has found that horse’s stress levels increase when these needs aren’t met.
Horses need to be able to move around. They have evolved to spend most of their time roaming. The more this movement is restricted, the higher their stress levels. Typically, a field is better than a stable, a bigger stable is better than a smaller one, and being loose in the stable is better than being tied up.
Horses have also evolved to spend most of their time eating and digesting forage. Horses who have less available forage not only tend to have higher stress levels, but are also at a higher risk of developing stomach ulcers. There is a common belief that stressy horses are more likely to develop ulcers. But maybe it’s more that both stress and ulcers are a sign that your horse’s needs aren’t being met. When we stable our horses they often have limited hay in the form of haynets.
Horses are very social animals. We know how important it is for them to have other horses around them. Horses should be able to see horses when they are stabled or in the field. But equally, they need to have horses they get on with around them. If they are getting bullied by other horses, only having these horses around will not help their stress levels.
FInally, one of the most important factors people forget about is social contact! It is not enough for horses to be able to see other horses, they need to be able to touch other horses. More and more horses are stabled and turned out in small, individual paddocks. How much time do our horses get to touch other horses? Studies have found that removing bars between stables can massively improve the happiness and behaviour of stabled horses.
Not providing the basics can make a spooky horse
Something what has always stuck with me is the idea that what we often see as reactive behaviour to a certain stimulus, can actually be caused by lots of little mundane things. The stimulus we see is just the final straw, pushing our horse over the edge.
For example, when riding our horse might spook at a plastic bag. We decide they are scared of the plastic bag. But what might actually be happening is they might have been bullied all day in the field. They might not have got the rest they wanted. They might have got pushed away from the water. Their stress levels were already quite high. They aren’t that scared of the plastic bag, but it might have surprised them and it just tipped them over the edge.
We have all been there when we have had a bad day and we have snapped at something that wouldn’t normally bother us. Well our horses could be reacting the same. We might actually be making our horses spooky or more difficult to ride because we aren’t able to see that their needs aren’t being met.
Can horses be happy stabled?
A big question of debate is can horses be happy when they are stabled. The short answer is yes.
While we have given plenty of examples as to how we might not be meeting our horse’s needs while they are stabled, our horses have been domesticated. Most of our horses are born in a stable or a barn and will be in and out of them their entire lives. The stable is normal and can be comfortable for them.
But there is also plenty we can do to help make sure our stable meets our horse’s needs. They should have plenty of space to turn around and lay down in their stable. They should have constant access to forage in the stable. They should be able to see other horses from their stable. You can add mirrors to help with this too.
Enabling more contact between horses in the stable is a bit more difficult as our stables usually need walls and or bars removed to make this happen. If your horse is turned out regularly and is able to have physical contact with horses whilst turned out, you might not need to make these changes to your stable.
We also have this idea that horses are always happier in the field. On the whole, I think this is true. But I think we have all known at least one horse who seems to hate being out in the field, especially when it starts to rain. There are also rescue cases where they have never been outside. When they are finally able to go outside, it’s a scary place and they they are happier inside.
Last Updated on 02/08/2022