It’s the age old question: Is my horse better off in a stall or in the pasture?
To begin, I am well aware that some horse owners don’t have the luxury of choosing where their horse is housed. You may board your horse somewhere that only provides a stall. Or you may have pasture land but no access to a barn with stalls. Or your horse may live in a small fenced dry lot. The purpose of this article is not to pass judgment, but simply to explore the advantages and disadvantages of all the possible scenarios.
Keep It Natural
I am a huge proponent of horses living in conditions as close to their natural environment as possible. Humans have attempted to domesticate a free roaming animal that is hard wired to graze all day in an unlimited range of grassland. Left unhindered, a horse will move an average of 15 miles a day with their social group and spend 16-17 hours per day grazing.
But we put them in a 12×12 stall, feed them a high energy diet, and then wonder why they have behavioral problems, ulcers, colic, and other ailments.
Freedom of movement is essential to a horse’s physical and mental well-being. Movement aids digestion. Horses are social and sensory animals. Physical contact with other horses is a basic essential need.
Time moving around in a pasture and out of a stall loosens joints, flexes muscles, and builds a strong skeletal system. And the older horses do a great job of teaching the youngsters about manners and respect.
There is even research proving that training takes significantly less time in pastured horses than stabled ones. I have found that to be true.
Herd Dynamics In The Pasture
It’s natural to have a pecking order among a horse herd. That interaction with pasture mates is one way a horse learns. When a new horse is introduced, it temporarily disrupts the current hierarchy. A new order must be established. For a horse, confinement increases aggression and anxiety, so the more space there is available, the better. Restricted spaces leave no room to escape from an aggressor. A larger pasture is a much better option than a small pen. It’s also good to block off any dead-end areas where a horse might get trapped and bullied.
Typically, a pasture mate’s aggressive behavior is intended only to threaten and establish dominance, not to injure. The group will likely settle into a daily routine within a few days and a new social order will be in place.
Unless there are consistent major injuries happening, allow the horses to work it out amongst themselves. Expect a few scrapes and scratches.
As far as controlling combative behavior when you’re not present, be consistent with the feeding with a flag exercise. Feed the pastured horses together. Have a flag with you. Use the flag to push any aggressive horse off the feed. A horse can only come to eat when not hostile towards you or the other horses. So if one pins his ears, attempts to bite or kick, use the flag to push him away. Then give him a chance to come to the feed with manners.
It can also be helpful to flag the dominant horse while RIDING the non-dominant because you’re causing the dominant to yield his feet away from the non-dominant. Doing these things can change their perceptions of how to be and transfer over to when the human is not present.
For more info about aggressive horses, go here: Aggressive Horses
A Horse Is A Horse
It’s common for people to try and transfer human traits onto their horse. We stall them when it rains to keep them dry. Some folks blanket them when it’s chilly so they don’t get cold. Others confine them in a stall at night because we like to go inside at night. And we forget that a horse is a horse, not a human.
Not sure if your horse needs a blanket? Read this: Should I Blanket My Horse?
His needs, both physically and mentally, are uniquely different from ours. Your horse will not melt in the rain. A healthy horse’s coat will keep him warm. He can also see in the dark. Your horse prefers to roam freely. Stall confinement goes against his basic survival instincts.
It’s common to see horses that have free access to a shelter still choose to remain out in the open pasture, even in bad weather.
If there is NO choice, and the horse must be consistently stalled, or kept in a small pen, re-evaluate his energy intake. Make sure he’s not consuming more energy than he’s using on a daily basis. More hay, less grain is a good rule of thumb. It takes longer to chew and digest hay which keeps some substance in the stomach longer. Eating produces saliva. Saliva protects the stomach from an overload of gastric acid which can also lead to ulcers.
Do your best to provide time out of the stall and access to a larger pasture area as often as possible.
Why A Stall?
Confining a horse to a stall takes away his ability to roam freely. This increases anxiety and impedes his digestive function. That’s why you will see stalled horses weaving, pacing, cribbing, or exhibiting other compulsive behaviors.
There are occasions when a stall may be necessary or convenient. For instance, an injured horse requires restricted movement. A sick or elderly horse needs specific care. Your horse must be readily available. Strict monitoring of feed intake and manure production is crucial. Extreme weather conditions are present.
But under ‘normal’ circumstances, your horse will be much happier and well adjusted if he can live 24/7 as part of a pasture herd.
No matter where your horse is fed, always place the grain/hay at gound level instead of in a hay net or raised trough. It will reduce the risk of choke, colic, and respiratory disorders. It also reduces skeletel strain and causes more natural wear of their teeth.
Watch my feeding video here: What To Do With A Horse That Crowds At Feed Time
Buddy Sour With Pasture Mate
If your horse becomes buddy sour with a pasture mate, locking him in a stall away from the buddy will only make things worse. Your horse actually needs to have a buddy. That’s not a bad thing. The only problem it presents is when the human enters the picture and the horse’s attention stays with the buddy. Learn how to fix that by becoming more interesting than your horse’s buddy: Buddy Sour.
In today’s compact world, more horses must be stalled as a matter of necessity. I get it. But if there is any possible way, allow your horse to live in a herd as nature intended. The mental and physical benefits are well established by valid research and the experience of expert horsemen throughout history.