Considerations & Criteria for Horse Housing
A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT FOR HORSES
Healthy horses live comfortably through hot summers or cold winters, and the physical conditions under which they can thrive range from indoor box stalls in barns to three-sided sheds in grassy pastures. Under natural conditions, feral and wild horses can travel up to 80 km or more per day. In domestic environments, horses housed in indoor housing, such as stables or barns, and even outdoors in pastures or paddocks, may have significantly less opportunity for locomotion. Compare this to the living environment of many domestic horses that may be housed in stalls and have their food brought to them. These horses may not have opportunities to exercise as much as they need to. Even horses kept outside or in pastures may not move around as much as they should.
A horse’s natural behaviours and preferences should provide guidelines for decision-making regarding the types of structures that are used to house them.
- Horses are adapted to living in wide-open spaces where they can easily detect danger and escape if frightened or attacked. They have a natural fear of confined spaces and do not like feeling trapped.
- Horses evolved to live in social groups with complex hierarchies and bilateral relationships. This means that each horse has an individual relationship with other herd mates and there is no single horse that is successful in every competitive interaction. There is no linear dominance hierarchy or “alpha” horse in social groups, as previously thought.
- Horses are athletic animals and move continuously while looking for and eating forage. They need large amounts of exercise to remain healthy. In natural conditions, feral or wild horses spend the majority of their day browsing and ingesting different types of grasses and other forages. Feeding practices that do not support the frequent consumption of forage results in digestive anomalies in horses.
- A horse can become ill or show abnormal behaviours if it is confined to a stable for long periods of time.
- A stabled horse is more likely to be exposed to germs, toxic dust and fumes than horses kept at pasture. Domestic horses can be exposed to on-farm hazards, such as dust, mould, or ammonia. The horse’s environment, both indoors and outdoors, should be monitored and maintained to reduce and prevent any hazards to the horse’s health.
- Living in cold, wet, windy or muddy conditions without adequate shelter or dry areas to stand or rest upon can lead to discomfort or illness.
HOW HORSES ADAPT TO THEIR ENVIRONMENT
Horses need to be introduced to the environments in which they live. Horses should be introduced to new environments gradually. There are a number of strategies and practices that will take their natural behaviours into account, support low-stress introductions and allow horses time to adapt to new environments.
- Introduce a horse to their new environment by leading them around the perimeter.
- Separate strange horses until they have a chance to become accustomed to each other. Keep new arrivals separate from existing herds or groups of horses. Using a fence line approach, where the new horse is housed in an adjacent pen to an existing group for several days, can help give horses time to adjust socially.
- Always monitor the introduction of new horses to an existing group. If ongoing or significant aggression between horses occurs, horses should be separated accordingly.
- Aggression between horses most often occurs when there is competition for resources, such as access to food or water.
- Introduce a horse to its new surroundings in the daylight. Take your cues from the horse. If they are very nervous, go slowly.
- Never turn a new horse out with an established group of horses, even if they are an old friend of the herd that has been separated for some time. The settled horses may gang up on the newcomer and injuries are possible. Put the new horse into a small paddock or corral in sight of the group.
- Gradually move the new horse closer to the pasture until they are next to the group of horses. Permit the new horse to sniff and nuzzle the members of the herd with a non-wire fence barrier between them.
- When all the preliminary kicks and squeals are done, put the horse into the group situation, in a pen with no tight corners with enough room that they can get away from each other if necessary. Stand by and watch the proceedings.
- Check the horse daily. Feed a light ration until the horse is comfortable with its new surroundings and different feed. The change in feed needs to be made gradually to avoid colic or other gastric upsets.
What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about mixing horses and introducing them to new environments?
“Horses are herd animals and prefer to live in groups. A single horse kept on a farm may benefit from increased human contact or the companionship of other grazing species (e.g., sheep).
Within a herd structure, horses interact on a dominance hierarchy. Some horses are more aggressive and may not be suitable for group turnout. When forming new groups, the introduction of new animals brings a risk of injury to horses. Aggression can be reduced by increasing the space allowance (initially or permanently) and/or allowing horses to become familiar with an existing group by first keeping them in an adjacent area (but separated by a strong fence or stall wall).”
Note that the Code of Practice indicates that horses have a dominance hierarchy, however, there is no evidence to support that horses have any concept of hierarchy. Horses have bilateral hierarchies meaning that between two horses, one will be dominant but the dominant horse in that relationship may not be dominant to all other horses in the social group.
The following requirement is identified in the Code of Practice:
Horses kept in groups must be managed in a way that minimizes the risk of injury.
LINK: The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines also provides information on disease transmission, an important consideration when mixing animals, especially new arrivals. Go to Section 4 in the Code to learn more about disease transmission. Why should disease transmission be considered when introducing horses to new environments?
These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:
- Get advice from a knowledgeable and experienced horse person on the first introduction of horses.
- Segregate horses into compatible groups. Where necessary, take into consideration the nutritional needs, age, sex and size of the horses.
- Ensure newly formed groups are monitored frequently and checked for injury.
- Separate animals that prove to be incompatible.
HORSE HOUSING NEEDS
All horses require protection from hot sun, wind or stormy weather or biting insects. All horses do not require pasture, but a pasture has several advantages and usually results in healthier horses. Housing horses outdoors, such as in pastures or paddocks, provides several advantages. When outdoors, horses have the opportunity to graze or browse grasses or other forage, and the ability to locomote freely. This is important for both the physical and mental health of horses. Access to grass also reduces the cost of feeding. Horses on pasture exercise more. All horses require protection from inclement conditions, such as heat, cold, wind, and rain. Horses should have access to a shelter with adequate space and ventilation.
All shelters should provide adequate room for horses and plenty of ventilation without drafts. Turnout areas can be provided in a paddock, corral or pasture.
Horses are highly adaptable to many weather conditions. However, they benefit from having access to a windbreak, shade or shelter especially during extremely hot or cold weather conditions, or if it is windy.
Zoning, building codes and the amount of land all influence the type of housing that can be provided for your horse. If a professional or expert is hired to build the housing, ensure that they have experience with horse housing, which is quite different than housing for people. Lighting, space, ventilation, traction, and storage facilities are all factors that must be considered.
There are many factors to consider when building even simple horse housing.
Horse housing design, whether a barn or stable, should be based on criteria such as the following:
- The materials used to build horse housing must be strong and durable to withstand the abuse that horses may place on it. Kicking, pushing, pulling and scraping are all forces that horses commonly exert. They also may have bad habits like pawing and chewing wood.
- To help with drainage, horse housing should be located on higher ground.
- Horse housing should be easily accessible for transporting hay and manure disposal.
- The width of the main passages should be wide enough to turn a large horse (minimum of 2.5 metres).
- Ventilation is very important for supplying fresh clean air and to help keep the humidity down. Windows work well when large enough and well-placed, but in some instances, fans may be required. There should also be a dust management strategy in place, such as opening windows or the use of fans.
- Grains or other feed should be stored where horses and pests cannot get access to them.
- Holders for grain, salt and minerals should be included in all stalls. Holders should be placed so horses eat with their heads lowered, which is a more natural position.
- Storage for bedding and hay should not be located in the barn or stable where horses are housed indoors, due to the risk of fire.
- A tack room in horse housing allows for safe and careful storage of handling and training equipment.
- Any potentially toxic chemicals, such as cleaning solutions, pesticides, or herbicides should be safely stored so horses cannot access them.
Aside from sheltering considerations, decisions must also be made about containment. If the horse is kept on an owner’s property, adequate fencing is essential. There are different kinds of fences – fencing materials, such as traditional wooden posts, electric fencing, wire, coated steel and/or PVC – and all have their strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the fencing material, it should be strong and monitored regularly to ensure it is in good condition. The power units of electric fencing should be designed to prevent short circuits or stray voltage, and an electric meter can be used to ensure the fence is maintained at the correct voltage. Temporary electric fencing should never be used.
- Fences constructed of metal pipes, poles or boards provide maximum safety for a horse.
- Wire fences, especially barbed wire, may cause injuries. A smooth top wire may reduce injuries. A board or pole fastened to the top of the fence may also help reduce injuries and prevent stretching of the wire. If wire fences are used, they should be tight, well attached to posts and ensure that no loose wire is lying around. Electric fences need to be checked often to make sure they are maintaining a current.
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.