Keeping stabled horses happy and healthy- by Sharon Smith MSc (award-winning Entrepreneur Scientist in the Equine Sector)
It is widely accepted that horses evolved to live their entire lives in family groups of around 6 individuals. Feral horses will travel many miles a day to satisfy the need for scattered resources. Stressful events are fleeting. If this is the equine ‘gold-standard’ of a natural lifestyle, even pasture-kept, group-housed, domestic horses are somewhat compromised. And it can be no surprise that the demands of stabling and training practices can put equine mental and physical health and performance at risk. For example, many stereotypies (vices) start because of early weaning and isolating the foal .
Management practices are second only to pain/discomfort as the largest cause of behaviour and performance issues. Yet, good management is also preventative for health, and many improvements can be implemented with very little cost and disruption. Even in stables, aim to satisfy what behaviourists call the ‘3Fs’: Friends, Forage and Freedom.
- Friends: the social needs of a herd animal cannot be underestimated. ‘Individual turnout’ for resting and retired horses is perhaps more of a welfare issue than stabling. Pasture-kept horses adapt more easily to training than stabled horses , and individual stabling results in more chronic illnesses. Yet, stables need not mean isolation:
- If there is a choice, select a stable that suits the horse’s temperament – some will be happier near the centre of the action on the yard – others prefer the quiet life.
- Ensure the horse is stabled with or next to a friend, but not a bully. They will be happier to sleep – see photo – recognised as important for performance, and feel able to use all their available stable space.
- Allow physical contact with their friendly neighbour - at least muzzle touching and, ideally, to allow mutual grooming at the withers.
- Forage: Horses are designed to eat whole plants, but preserving and feeding hay can result in dust . We need to ensure the stabled horse can trickle-feed in a head-lowered position and do what we can for respiratory health:
- Feed dust-free, clean forage – the Haygain steamer is the only steamer with a wealth of scientific evidence for killing bacteria and mould spores . Steaming preserves the nutritional content and increases palatability.
- Reduce the amount of time the horse is without forage to avoid stomach ulcers. Small-holed haynets only extend feeding time by 5 minutes per kilogram . The Haygain Forager provides a better posture, and more than doubles the time it takes to eat the hay ration without frustration .
- The Haygain Forager also prevents horses from burying their noses in the forage, and you can see how much airborne dust is prevented from what is left behind after the horse has eaten his hay.
- Base the diet on forage, not just fibre. If appetite is limited, check there is sufficient salt in the diet, then gradually introduce rapeseed or corn oil while reducing grain-based feed. 500ml oil contains as many calories as 1.5kg oats and is non-heating. Also lipids (oils) are metabolised using different pathways within the muscle – providing a second aerobic energy pathway, if the horse is fed it during training .
- Freedom: To choose, to move, to act out natural behaviours. Seems impossible in a stable? Not necessarily!
- This sounds basic, but make sure the stable is actually big enough for the horse. Many ‘standard’ sizes do not allow a large horse to turn around, lay down and stand up comfortably. The minimum recommended floor size for a rabbit hutch is 6’ x 2’ (plus a run!) enough to allow 3 little hops . How many horses can trot 3 strides in their stable? Consider using a large field shelter as a stable of one horse if starting from scratch.
- Horses are more settled when they can see over a distance to the horizon  so consider giving them a vista.
- Set up a small secure ‘run’ – perhaps no larger than the actual stable - and leave the stable door open (see photo). This could also allow more social contact with a neighbour. The horse also now has control over their physical state, a choice to be in or outside. A sense of control is known to reduce stress.
- Help them enjoy movement while they work. Pollution, pollen, arena dust - they all irritate airways. The Flexineb2 nebuliser can be used with non-prescription options, like saline, or Haygain’s organic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, silver-based solution, ‘Silvaplex’.
- Provide what behaviourists call ‘enrichment’. This goes beyond a treat-ball or lick. Allow horses to: gently scratch an itch using a ‘Pillow Post’; pick up and shake rubber items with the teeth; chew on willow and the bark of safe trees; step on and paw things; search for tiny slices of carrot hidden around the stable etc.
- If a horse has developed an oral (cribbing / windsucking) or locomotor (box-walking / weaving) stereotypy and all the 3F measures don’t help reduce it, they should be allowed to perform the behaviour, but be protected from harming themselves. Use rubber sheets to protect teeth and doors, or rubber matting to reduce strain on joints. Cribbing collars and anti-weave bars create further stress and are ineffective in ‘training’ the horse to not do it . Those that are continually punished will enter a stressful state of learned helplessness – which is not healthy. Just as a child doesn’t copy nail-biting, or thumb-sucking, neither do horses copy ‘vices’ . If horses could learn by imitation, we’d have all stables overlooking an arena or gallop track by now.
So while physical pain and discomfort is the primary reason for misbehaviour or poor performance, management can result in slow-burning health problems. There’s no substitute for group turnout with the right horses. But where needs-must, we should use the 3F’s: Friends; Forage and Freedom, to reap the rewards of high welfare.
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