Outdoor & Indoor Horse Housing Choices

Icon of a book Outdoor & Indoor Housing Choices for Horses

Horses can be cared for under many different management styles. They can be housed in barns or stables on a full-time basis or managed continuously in pastures.


Housing structures have direct effects on the health of horses. Like any building, housing structures must meet local building standards and codes, and be appropriate for your horse, your land use and your budget.

One of the first decisions a horse owner has to make is how and where to house the horse. Horse owners who have access to land that is zoned for horse use often choose to house their horse where they live. Others will select a commercial stable or boarding facility, which can include daily care services and opportunities to interact with other horse owners and caregivers. 

How and where horse care is provided determines the equipment needed, as well as daily operation costs, including feed, veterinary care and farrier services.

Outdoor housing can be a very practical means of maintaining horses. The aim of outdoor shelter is to reduce wind speed and prevent precipitation, especially rain, from causing heat loss in the horse.


Horses can live comfortably outside with access to an appropriate shelter that provides protection from inclement conditions, such as wind, rain, snow and sun. Three-sided sheds, or run-in shelters, are often used in paddocks or pastures to provide protection from the elements. Older horses, or those with health concerns, may require additional shelter, such as a stall in a barn. They may also need to be blanketed. 

Open shed rows are common at fairgrounds and race tracks. They are basically box stalls in a row with doors that open to the outdoors. The doorway is often a split or Dutch door design to allow the upper half to be left open, which provides good ventilation. However, Alberta’s weather does not permit this type of door design to be used in the winter.

Simple shelter designs, trees or windbreaks can provide the necessary protection from the elements and can be a very effective means of maintaining horses. Windbreaks are essential for all animals housed outdoors to slow the wind speed and, therefore, the wind chill.

It is important to keep in mind that older horses may be more susceptible to cold and harsh weather conditions than their younger counterparts. Older horses that have done well in lean-tos and run-in sheds may need to be blanketed and/or housed indoors in a barn or stable for adequate protection.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about shade and outdoor shelter?

“Horses can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions due to their physiological and behavioural responses that help them maintain body temperatures within a normal range. Shelter can be natural (e.g., trees, hedges) or artificial (e.g., shade cloths, stables). Research shows that horses are particularly likely to seek shelter during rainy, windy conditions or snowy, windy conditions.

The following equines are more vulnerable to cold, damp weather:

  • Foals and geriatrics 
  • Equines that are injured, sick or have a low body condition score 
  • Equines with a moist or wet coat, due to rain or sweat (a wet coat has reduced insulation capacity)
  • Body clipped equines
  • Equines that are not acclimatized to cold, damp weather.

Blankets are sometimes used to offer protection from weather and insects. However, blankets can lead to sores and heat stress. Blankets can also mask changes in the horse’s health, and some of these changes can occur quickly (e.g., skin infections, a change in weight or body condition score). Therefore, if blankets are used, the condition of the horse beneath the blankets must be examined at least weekly.


Within a temperature range called the “thermoneutral zone”, animals do not have to expend any additional energy to maintain a normal body temperature. In horses, the thermoneutral zone is between 5 and 20 degrees Celsius. Within the lower or upper temperatures of this range, horses may modify their behaviour without any increased energy needs. In temperatures outside the range, increased metabolic energy is required to maintain normal body temperature.

Shivering is a heat-producing response to cold temperatures. It may be seen particularly when the horse is unable to move around, whether indoors or outdoors. Shivering horses are not thermally comfortable. 

Horses should also be monitored for heat stress in hot ambient temperatures. A horse facing heat stress may appear weak or disoriented. Other signs of heat stress include muscle tremors and shallow or rapid breathing.”

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

Horses must have access to shelter (constructed or natural) that protects them from the harmful effects of extreme weather conditions.

Promptly assist individual horses that are showing signs of heat or cold stress. 

If blankets are used, the condition of the horse beneath the blankets must be examined at least weekly. Blankets must be appropriate for the weather conditions and not result in heat stress.

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice: 

  1. Ensure there is sufficient shelter space to accommodate all horses in a given turnout area or paddock at the same time.
  2. Build or renovate shelters for the easy removal of waste.
  3. Remove blankets daily to inspect the horse’s condition.
  4. Ensure blankets are well fitted and in good repair. If blankets are used in wet conditions, they should be waterproof and breathable.


A stable can be a building or barn that contains one or more stalls in which horses are kept. A well-designed stable protects horses from weather extremes and keeps them dry while providing fresh air, light and protection from injury. A stable should be designed to provide a better environment than a horse may experience outdoors as well as help a horse owner provide care.

Stables need ample space for the well-being of the horses, chore efficiency, material storage and the convenience and safety of handlers. Many horses are successfully kept outside with access to a simple shelter.

Stables may also contain items like tack rooms, wash racks, grooming areas, feed rooms and offices. 

Stables should allow for maximum light, ventilation and safety for horses. They should be elevated above the surrounding terrain to maximize drainage. Stables can become flooded if drainage is not well planned, and excessive moisture can result in mould in the stable or hoof problems for horses. 


Individual box stalls, in which horses are loose, are commonly used for indoor housing. These stalls must be wide enough for horses to fit comfortably and allow the horse to lie down and get up easily. Indoor housing requires a considerable amount of labour to remove manure and keep the stalls clean. 

  • If a box stall is used, it should comfortably house the horse. The size of the stall will depend on the size of your horse, but the standard stall should not be less than 3.7 by 3.7 metres. An appropriate space allowance is 2 to 2.5 times the height of the horse (at the withers), in m2. The walls should be at least 1 metre high and the door should be 1.2 metres wide. 
  • There should be partitions between stalls to prevent aggression and injury between horses that do not get along. However, even horses in stalls must be able to see other horses in order to decrease stress. 
  • If a tie stall is used, there are some important considerations to ensure the well-being of the horse. Each tie stall should be a minimum of 1.5 metres wide so that a horse can lie down comfortably and at least 3.7 metres long. The manger and hay rack are included in this length. It is recommended that tie stalls are only used for the purpose of temporary restraint or for medical purposes, due to the restriction of natural movement. Industries should have a well-established animal care program to monitor the welfare of horses housed in tie stalls.
  • If the horse is housed in a stable with little room to roam, it is important that they receive ample opportunity for turnout and exercise.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about indoor housing?

“Depending on the region, horses may not need indoor housing. Horse welfare should be prioritized when constructing or renovating facilities. The main considerations are the safety and comfort of the horses, ease of access, and adequate drainage and ventilation. If poorly designed or managed, stabling can contribute to the spread of disease and the risk of injury.”

The following requirement is identified in the Code of Practice:

Facilities must be designed and maintained to minimize the risk of injury. 

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Build or renovate facilities so that horses have contact with other horses via sight, sound and smell.
  2. Inspect equipment regularly to ensure it is in good working order.
  3. Avoid having sharp corners and projections and ensure facilities are free from dangerous objects.
  4. Build facilities that can be easily cleaned and disinfected.
  5. When building new facilities, consider factors such as drainage and manure removal when determining where on the farm to situate the facilities.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about space allowances in outdoor and indoor living environments?

“The risk of injury increases when horses are overcrowded in pastures or yards or there is competition for any resource. The amount of outdoor space horses need depends on many factors. Generally, a minimum space allowance per horse, in m2, is 2 to 2.5 times the height of the horse (at the withers) squared. Ideally, in outdoor environments, there should be enough space to allow horses to canter. This space allowance allows for the normal movements of the horse [indoors], including lying down.”

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

At a minimum, each horse must have enough space to move easily, walk forward, turn around with ease and lie down in a normal resting posture. There must also be sufficient space for subordinate horses to escape aggression.

In muddy conditions, horses must, at a minimum, have access to a mud-free, well-drained area in the pasture/yard on which to stand and lie down.

For indoor facilities, each horse must have enough space to lie down in a normal resting posture, stand with the head fully raised, walk forward and turn around with ease. In the case of tie stalls used for temporary restraint, each horse must have enough space to stand with the head fully raised, and step forward in comfort. Tie stalls in research facilities should be used only with an established animal care program to monitor the welfare of the horses.

For group housing, there must be sufficient space for subordinate horses to escape aggression.

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Practise good pasture management (e.g., pasture rotation, weed control, appropriate stocking density).
  2. Maintain pastures free from equipment, debris and poisonous plants.
  3. Ensure ceiling or support beam height allows a minimum clearance space of 61 cm (2 ft) above horse head height when standing (ideally, the clearance space should exceed 1 m [3.3 ft]). Ceiling height is important for horse comfort, safety and ventilation.
  4. Ensure alleyways in indoor systems are wide enough to allow a horse to turn around comfortably (3 m [9.8 ft] is a suggested minimum width).
  5. Ensure doorways used by horses are wide enough to allow easy passage (e.g., 1.22 m [4 ft] wide). Doorways that may need to accommodate two horses at once should be twice this width. The use of doorways built for human passage is not ideal for horses and is discouraged.
  6. Ensure entrances used by horses are at least 30.5 cm (1 ft) above head height when the horse is in a normal standing posture.
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.

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