Behavioral Considerations When Housing Horses

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Credit: Thinkstock Horse housing should have wide aisles with no obstacles, and stalls should provide enough room for safety and to keep horses from becoming bored.

Credit: Thinkstock Horse housing should have wide aisles with no obstacles, and stalls should provide enough room for safety and to keep horses from becoming bored.

Livestock species all have different housing requirements based on their physical and behavioral needs as well as the amounts and types of exercise and activities in which they participate. If you prioritize the creature comforts of people over horses, you are sure to develop a facility that houses sick horses with behavioral problems. However, if you design a horse facility that provides a safe and healthy environment for the horse, you will ultimately have a functional and cost-efficient facility.

Understanding some horse behavior fundamentals and housing requirements for the optimum health and well-being of horses is essential before you can design or renovate a functional horse facility. When designing horse facilities, you must consider how horses differ behaviorally from other livestock.

Horses evolved primarily as plains dwellers. Often an object of prey for large cats or wolves, they developed a very strong flight response: flee. The flight response is a horse’s main survival technique, and this single characteristic—being a preyed-upon animal—is more strongly related to how a horse thinks and behaves than almost any other characteristic. The flight instinct that helps a horse survive in the wild can lead to injuries to both the horse and humans in a domestic setting.

Horse facilities should therefore be designed to provide a safe environment for horses and the people who interact with them. Structures need to provide adequate room and safe footing for a horse to spook to decrease potential or severity of any injuries. Building materials need to be strong enough to withstand the horse’s weight as well as sharp kicks from their hooves.

Herd Behavior

Horses are naturally herd animals who, when given a choice, will seek interaction with other horses instead of spending time alone. Within a horse herd there is a social protocol that is based on dominance hierarchy. A horse’s social rank may determine his eating order, his access to enter a shelter, or his ability to socialize with another horse. In most cases, the dominant horse will get to eat and seek shelter first. In some cases, a dominant horse will keep another horse away from the feed bin, shelter area or even other horses in a group. While this hierarchal system hardly seems fair to our democratic mindset, it actually serves to keep the peace in a horse herd.

The dominant horse usually only has to signal with laid back ears and exposed teeth to keep the rank and file in order. Actual physical fighting is most often avoided since the horses know their pecking order within the herd. If a horse cannot get adequate feed or shelter because of its place in the pecking order, it may need to be moved to another group. However, it is important to realize that each time a horse is introduced to a group, the process of establishing that group’s hierarchy starts again.

When people frequently change horse groupings, they may find that their horses are “always fighting.” If they let the pecking order get established, that fighting quickly settles down.

Shelters that are shared with more than one horse should provide 80 square feet of floor space per 1,000 pounds of horse weight. In addition, partitions inside the shed may allow more horses access to the shelter.

Most horse experts agree that allowing horses to experience socialization in a domestic setting offers a greater degree of well-being for the horses. Socialization can be offered when horses are housed together in a pasture or turned out daily in familiar groups. Horses can even socialize through a fence in adjacent paddocks.

Socializing becomes harder when horses are housed indoors for the majority of the time. While there is still some group indoor housing, most horses are housed individually in a boxed stall. You can increase a horse’s sense of social well-being by designing facilities so that horses can see and hear each other in a well-lit environment.

Time Budget

Animal behaviorists record how an animal breaks up its day into various behavioral activities and create a time budget. Under natural conditions, horses do not spend long periods alone in an enclosed area, such as a stall.

Free-ranging horses (also known as feral horses) spend nearly half the day engaged in foraging behavior. A mere 8% of the day is spent lying down. In comparison, a stalled horse will spend considerably less time eating and more time lying down. Consequently, when horses are kept in stalls for long periods, many become bored and develop undesirable behaviors such as wood chewing and pawing, or stereotypic behaviors like weaving or cribbing.

On a more positive note, a Michigan State University research study (Rivera, et al. 2002 ) found that young horses housed outside on pasture were easier to train, were more responsive to the rider, required less riding time and bucked less frequently when compared to stalled horses. Most probably, the stalled horses in the study had more pent-up energy to deal with during a training session than the pastured horses. Even adult horses are typically more relaxed and willing when returning from a pasture as opposed to being pent up in a stall.

Exercise pens should provide at least 1,000 square feet per horse (12-by-80–foot pen).

If a pasture is to provide the majority of the horse’s forage needs during the grazing season, the stocking rate should be 2-4 acres per 1,000 pound horse if the pasture is well-managed.

Housing Requirements

While the most natural setting for a horse is outside with shelter from harsh weather, horses that are shown or kept on small acreage may need to be stalled. Most experts agree that horses should have at least three to six hours of turnout time a day to prevent undesirable behaviors and promote healthy skeleton and respiratory health. The housing dimensions and materials used should accommodate a horse’s wide range of behaviors to promote a safe working environment for both horse and handler.

Stalls

The height of the stall should be a minimum of eight feet. A 10-foot by 10-foot stall should be the absolute minimum size, and 10-foot by 12-foot or 12-foot by 12-foot are preferred size.

For stallions, draft horses and foaling stalls, a 12-foot by 14-foot or 12-foot by 16-foot stall is preferable. The larger stalls are easier to keep clean and provide more room for big horses to move around. Larger stalls may help alleviate some of the common undesirable behaviors like kicking, chewing and pawing.

Barn Alleys

Barn alleys are like hallways in any house or building; they help navigate from one room (or stall) to another. A barn alley needs to be large enough to facilitate the safe movement of a 1,200-pound animal (and sometimes its offspring), a handler and equipment like tractors and spreaders. An alley needs to be wide enough to accommodate horse traffic at peak working times and tall enough to prevent a horse from hitting its head if it rears-up.

Minimum width recommendations for horse traffic alone are 10- to 12-feet wide with a preferred width of 12- to 16-feet wide to comfortably accommodate horse traffic as well as farm vehicles and tractors. Alleys should be at least eight feet high, but preferably higher (9-10 feet) to accommodate a horse. In alleys that need to facilitate a horse and rider, the minimum height should be 14 to 15 feet.

Ideally, barn alleys should be free of objects like tack boxes and saddle racks that can be a hazard to horse and human traffic. In addition, stalled horses should be fully enclosed (with bars or mesh for visibility) so that they cannot reach out and bite horses or people as they walk by.

Finally, in alleys with high traffic, as well as different experience levels of handlers and horses, it is recommended that horses are not tied in the alley, either by cross ties or tied to the side wall.

Always make sure that horses pass “left to left,” making sure the handlers are between the horses to allow them to swing a horse’s hindquarters away from the other horse/handler if it tries to kick.

Stallion Housing Options, graphics, and other information from this article may be found on MSU’s website.