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How to Prevent a Stabled Horse from Developing Bad Habits

Updated on November 2, 2012
One of my daughters on Scout.
One of my daughters on Scout. | Source

Equine Health

All responsible horse owners are concerned with equine health. Most owners want to make sure that their animals get the right food and nutrition, including vitamins, minerals, and other supplements. Most also ensure that their equines get regular veterinary care and proper health maintenance, including hoof care and dental care. Most horse owners are usually pretty good when it comes to grooming, too. What’s missing here? In case you didn’t spot it, what’s missing here is horse health of the mental and emotional types. Those are just as important as the animal’s physical health. In fact, an equine’s metal and emotion wellbeing can affect overall horse health, and it can have a strong impact on horse behavior, too. When horses aren’t emotionally or mentally stable, or when they’re under undue emotional stress, horse problems usually aren’t far behind. Such problems are often seen in horse stables, where the animals are confined to stalls for long periods of time. Below are some tips about how to prevent a stabled horse from developing bad habits.

Horses crave the company of other equines.
Horses crave the company of other equines. | Source

Horse Behavior

Through domestication and horse training, man has greatly altered normal horse behavior. Horses in the wild were very active and always on the move. They grazed for a living and had to travel in order to find fresh grass. As herd animals, they were always in the presence of other equines, too. We humans changed that normal behavior when we began taming horses for our own purposes. We placed them in pens, corrals, pastures, barns, and horse stalls. Sometimes they were and still are kept alone.

The first equine I had that was all mine was a Welsh pony named Red. I was only eight years old at the time, so I didn’t know much about horse behavior. My parents weren’t really blessed with information on horses, either. Red was kept alone, in a large pen. Whenever a horse traveled past his enclosure, or when we’d encounter another equine on rides, Red would go crazy. He’d whinny excitedly and would always want to join the other horse or horses. Fortunately, Red did get plenty of human attention. His corral was just out the back door from my father’s store, and my brother spent a lot of time with the pony.

As I got older and gained more experience, my understanding of horse behavior expanded, including horse boredom. I’ve owned and handled scores of equines. I’ve been involved with breeding, showing, and horse training and have had close relationships with numerous horses and ponies. I’ve also done a lot of research. Much of this topic has to do with the application of common sense, along with a basic understanding of how a horse’s mind works. It’s not rocket science, but it will probably be insightful to novices.

Horses need plenty of time out of their stalls.
Horses need plenty of time out of their stalls. | Source

Horse Care

In my opinion, the best horse care is provided when the animals have regular access to large pastures and live with other equines. That, at least, somewhat mirrors the natural behavior of the animals. To improve the situation, a warm, dry barn should be provided for inclement weather. If nothing else, horses should have a run-in shelter. Stabling a horse full time is probably the least natural scenario.

Equines don’t like being stuck in a stall. They enjoy and need regular exercise, and when denied any freedom at all, they can become restless, nervous, and even depressed. A big part of proper horse health is taking care of your steed’s emotional needs and mental stimulation. You’ll find that a happy horse is usually a healthier horse, and in most cases, such an equine will be much easier to handle and train.

Establish a routine with your equine. Most horses feel more secure with a set routine as far as feeding times, grooming, and exercise are concerned. The exercise itself should be varied, but the horse needs to know that it will spend time outside the stall each day. Come up with a realistic plan and stick to it. Every once in a while, try to surprise your horse with something it’ll really enjoy, like a group trail ride.

Horse Stables with paddock.
Horse Stables with paddock. | Source

Horse Stables

I’ve kept some of my equines in horse stables before, but none were ever forced to live in a stall full time. On the surface, it might seem like keeping a horse in a stall most of the time will make it easier on you, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, your work and responsibilities will be harder. You’ll have to supply a large quantity of water each day, and you’ll need to give the horse adequate exercise. A horse stall has to be cleaned regularly, which can be a pretty daunting chore, especially if you let the muck build up.

Some owners also believe that stabling their horse is kinder and more humane, but it’s not. For the most part, horses had much rather brave the elements than be stuck in a stall. Equines are a lot tougher than you might think when it comes to frigid temperatures, as a healthy horse generates a lot of heat. And if it gets really frigid where you live, you can always check out horse blankets for your steed to wear. I’ve included some horse blankets for sale, below this paragraph.

If you’re in the process of comparing horse stables, do your homework before signing on the dotted line. Examine the horse stalls to make sure they’re safe and that they’re large enough for comfort. Do the stalls have attached paddocks? Will your horse have access to pasture? If so, does the stable staff provide a turnout service? You’ll also want a stable that provides each horse owner with a tack room. You’ll need this for storing horse feed, saddles, bridles, blankets, supplements, grooming tools, and other equine supplies.

Horse Blankets:

Many Horse Problems can be avoided with mental and physical exercise.
Many Horse Problems can be avoided with mental and physical exercise. | Source

Horse Problems

What types of horse problems can result from constant stabling? Let’s cover the physical problems first. Depending on what sort of flooring or footing the horse stall has, it can invite hoof and leg problems. When horses don’t move, their circulation slows. And, if the flooring is concrete, it can be hard on joints, bones, and connective tissues. If the stall isn’t cleaned regularly and adequately, hoof problems like thrush can develop. Stalls can also get incredibly dusty and can cause breathing problems. If your animal is stabled, you’ll probably need to pay closer attention to your horse care routine.

Other horse problems resulting from too many hours spent in a stall and horse boredom are behavioral problems. Horses often get bored in stables, and some resort to cribbing or chewing wood. Some horse owners use these two terms interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same. With wood chewing, the animal actually chews on wood, sometimes breaking off pieces and swallowing them. Cribbing is a little different. With it, horses usually seize a wooden structure, like a stall rail, between its teeth. Once it has a good grip on the wood, the animal arches its neck sharply and inhales quickly. Experts aren’t completely sure why horses do this or what benefit they get by cribbing. The activity might increase endorphins, giving the horse a feeling of wellbeing. Cribbing and wood chewing can both wear down the teeth and possibly lead to colic, a sometimes fatal condition. You can tell if your steed is chewing or biting on wood by examining the stall.

Some stabled horses might exhibit circling. If you’ve ever been to the zoo and seen big cats like lions or tigers constantly walking in circles around their cages, that’s what I’m referring to. This constant moving in small circles can burn up a lot of calories, and it might even lead to conditions of lameness. A related problem is weaving, where the horse sways in its stall, shifting weight from the legs on one side to the legs on another. Just like circling, weaving can lead to lameness. It can also cause some damage to the hooves by causing one part of the hooves to wear more than other parts. Another related nervous habit is pawing, which is especially problematic in horse stalls with sand or dirt floors. Once again, this activity can cause uneven wear on the hooves and even cause the horse to be lame.

Horses that spend too much time in their stalls can also become very territorial and even aggressive. When faced away from the stall door, the animal might kick at anyone or anything that approaches the stall. It might also try to bite anything or anyone that walks by the stall. Some horses get so used to being in their stall that they fear leaving it. It might be hard to get them to exit the stable, and when they do, they might rush headlong back to the barn whenever they get the chance. These horses are often described as being “barn sour.” For some horse training tips about reversing barn sourness, click the link.

Equines might also have so much pent-up energy from being stabled that they “act up” once they’re freed from their small confines. Such horses might become extremely hard to manage, and a few might even become dangerous. Don’t wait until you see symptoms in your horse. As usual, prevention is much better than finding a solution once the bad habits have been adopted.


Companion Animals

As I’ve already mentioned, horses are social animals that enjoy the company of others. If your horse is stabled, and if there are other horses in the barn, have your animal in a stall next to another horse. Unless the dividing wall is very high and solid, the two equines can “visit” with each other even when they’re stalled.

If your horse isn’t around other horses, consider other companion animals. These might include a donkey, a pony, or a miniature horse. Some horses really seem to get along well with goats, too. My granddaughter’s miniature horse became best friends with an English bulldog. If your horse’ stall is large enough, consider placing a small companion animal right in the same stall with your equine. You’ll need to introduce the two new pals gradually, however. You don’t know for sure how your horse will react at first.

Even if your horse isn’t kept in a stall, but it’s an only horse, a companion animal is still a good idea. Having a pal could very well make your horse happier and more content. In the long run, you’ll be the beneficiary of such an arrangement.

Balls make great Horse Toys!

Playing fetch:

Great stall toy:

Horse Toys

One way to help avoid problems associated with boredom is to use horse toys. You can buy toys for horses, or you can make your own simple horse toys for free. One of the best is an empty gallon jug. Attach a short piece of cord or rope to the jug’s handle, and tie the cord to a roof rafter. Make sure the jug hangs low enough to be maneuvered by the horse’s head or muzzle, but make sure the cord isn’t long enough to wrap around the animal’s head or neck. An old tire and a frisbee can make good pasture toys, too.

There are horse products you can buy to relieve boredom, too. Some are designed to be used in the stall, and they might attach to a wall. Such toys might require the animal to manipulate a roller in order to get a treat. Other stall toys might provide the horse with something safe to lick, nibble on, and mouth. If you like the suspended jug idea, you might be interested in purchasing other stall toys that are suspended from the ceiling, like a large plastic scented apple.

Some horse toys are designed to be used outside the stall, like a large ball. We’ve had equines that loved playing with balls! They’d move the balls with their front feet and with their heads, and they enjoyed chasing the rolling spheres. Some of the balls included soft handles, and the horses liked grabbing the handles with their teeth and tossing the balls. Another type of pasture or paddock toy is one that’s tube shaped and holds feed or treats inside. The equines can roll it, kick it, and toss it around.

Horse Feed

Changing or adjusting your horse feed might be beneficial to your bored horse, too. A healthy equine enjoys eating, and to some horses, eating is a calming activity. If you’re feeding mostly concentrated horse feed, it doesn’t take your animal long to consume its breakfast and dinner. It would be better to stretch the feed out over a longer period of time. Horses are natural grazers. Think about it from a human perspective. Let’s say you want to consume 1,500 calories a day. If you ate nothing but candy bars, it wouldn’t take long to meet your calorie quota. On the other hand, think about how many hours it would take you to eat that many calories in lettuce. Try feeding more roughage and less concentrated feed. The horse will have to do a lot more chewing, and it will be busy eating for a longer period each day. Before you make a big change in your horse’s feed, however, talk to your vet for some guidance. Make the change gradually, too. A sudden change in feed can upset your animal’s delicate digestive system.

Fight Horse Boredom with plenty of "down time," exercise, and horse toys.
Fight Horse Boredom with plenty of "down time," exercise, and horse toys. | Source

How To Prevent A Stabled Horse From Developing Bad Habits

I’ve provided some information on horses here that I hope will be useful for new owners. We’ve talked about horse care and equine health, along with problems often associated with stabled equines. Just remember that horse health isn’t just about the body. You also have to take your animal’s mental and emotional wellbeing into consideration. Keep your steed’s mind busy and try your best to keep the animal happy and emotionally balanced. If your horse is stabled, get it out of the stall as often as possible. Provide it with plenty of exercise and the company of other horses or other species of companion animals. Horses aren’t designed to be prisoners, and if it’s stalled for long periods, that’s just what it will feel like – a prisoner. Taking good care of all the aspects involved with horse care will provide benefits for your mount, and these will transfer to you. Having a well balanced, calm animal is definitely worth the extra work and trouble required on your part. The benefits far outweigh the requirements.

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