Looking after your horse: the right living environment
Many aspects need to be considered when choosing the right management system and living environment for a horse.
For example, it is essential that the facilities are safe, secure and appropriate to the needs of the individual horse.
Keeping a horse at home sounds ideal to most owners. However, this will only work if enough suitable land, time and back-up help is available. Equally, keeping a horse permanently at grass might appear to be an easy management system, but this too can be time-consuming (maintaining the pasture and fencing) and is often unsuited to the needs of many horses.
Stabling can range from traditional stalls and loose boxes (stables) to communal systems such as crew barns and sheltered corral units. Horses can be kept individually within separate boxes or housed with several others in larger barns. All systems have advantages and disadvantages, but the same general considerations apply to ensure the welfare of the horses being housed.
Most loose boxes measure more than three and a half metres square, although smaller ponies may be comfortable in smaller boxes. Large horses, however, require an above-average size space to ensure that they have sufficient room to stand up, turn around and lie down in comfort and without risk of injury. In communal housing, consideration must be given to the age, size and type of horses sharing the space, to ensure that the animals all fare equally well and that fighting does not occur. Each horse being kept communally should have a minimum space of at least twice that required by a single horse kept in an individual loose box.
Ventilation and drainage
All stabling must have a good drainage system, be well ventilated and free from draughts. Drainage requires a combination of structural considerations (such as a sloping floor and/or drainage channels) and effective stable management, combining the use of an appropriate bedding material and, when soiled, its frequent removal (together with muck and discarded hay).
Effective ventilation is essential, to ensure that horses have fresh air, which is free from dust and spores. In a stuffy stable environment these can lead to respiratory infec-tions and health problems. The design of the building should allow for the free flow of air, and (ideally) the opening should face away from prevailing winds. Rugs can minimise the risk of chills, allowing good ventilation to be maintained.
Plenty of natural light is desirable, and this can be provided by windows, open aspects and clear roof panels. Electric lighting (both inside and out) is essential during dark winter months, to provide a safe working environment for the keeper. Horses also benefit from a well-lit environment. All electrical fittings should be safe, durable and well out of the reach of the horses.
It is essential to provide non-slip flooring. Rubber matting provides an excellent base that is both comfortable (allowing the horse to stand and lie down), and a good shock absorber, thereby helping to minimise stress on the horse’s joints from prolonged standing. If horses are stabled for long periods, additional loose bedding material should be used on top of the rubber matting, thus providing addit-ional comfort and an absorbent disposable layer. If not permanently sealed, rubber mats require lifting on a regular basis, so that the floor beneath can be washed periodically with disinfectant.
The bedding provided must suit the horse (and also the time constraints on the keeper) and be of a suitable thickness so that, when the horse lies down, there is no chance of injury being caused by floor pressure or abrasion. This will also minimise the risk of becoming stuck (cast) against the walls if the horse rolls.
Various types of loose bedding material are available – such as straw, wood shavings, shredded paper and chopped cardboard. Whiche-ver bedding is used, it must be of good quality and hazard-free. Each type of bedding has advantages and disadvantages. The choice should be based on individual needs and circumstances. The effectiveness of a bedding material reduces if the bed itself is not kept clean or if insufficient quantities are used.
Keeping a horse at home is not an easy option as the upkeep of fields, fencing etc is expensive and also time-consuming. Also, providing equine companionship for a ridden horse can be a logistical headache.
Renting grazing space or providing land at home is not an option for every horse keeper. Therefore many horses are kept at private or commer-cial livery yards. These provide a variety of levels of service, ranging from the simple renting of a stable and/or shared grazing space, to the total care (including exercise) of a horse on behalf of its owner.
Golden rules to ensure the well-being of housed horses
In addition to providing a comfortable and clean stable, it is also important to consider the horse’s needs. This prevents boredom and the development of bad habits and stress-related behaviour when housed. Attempts should be made to provide a stimulating environment (and occupation) during periods of confinement.
Establish a good yard routine, so that (for example) horses know what to expect and when they will next be fed.
Adequate appropriate care and exercise is essential for all horses, particularly those that are housed
Allow for plenty of variety during the day and maximise the time spent out of the stable – for example, let the horse loose in the manege arena (perhaps with another horse) when the stable is being mucked out
Horses benefit from consistent human contact and handling. Spend time interacting with the horse, for example, grooming at times other than when preparing for riding.
Divide the horse’s diet into smaller feeds, feeding little and often. Provide a fibre-based diet and use fine-mesh hay nets and snack balls, to increase the time spent foraging for the available feed.
Make sure fresh, clean water is available at all times.
Horses are naturally inquisitive. Stable toys can provide good interaction and keep the horses occupied. Alternate toys regularly, to maintain novelty and interest.
Provide additional interest by hanging a carrot, apple or swede from the ceiling of the stable
Horses are herd animals, and need compatible equine companionship. Allow for some interaction between horses in adjacent stables, to provide essential equine contact.
Enriching the stabling environment is highly beneficial, but it is no substitute for time spent out of the confines of the stable (where the horse may exercise and behave freely with other equines)