Safe, reliable confinement is the foundation of effective horse management. Loose horses can severely injure themselves, overeat to the point of laminitis and colic, wander out into traffic or simply disappear forever. A lot of horses are set loose during one-time lapses when caretakers forget to close a gate or latch a door. Vigilant double checks of barriers and ingrained gate/door-latching habits would prevent most of these unplanned outings.
But every once in a while a horse comes along who learns to fiddle or shove or leap his way out of confinement, and the game is on. Many of these crafty escapees then go on to free other horses to join in the adventures. The slyest of these escape artists seem to time their antics for periods when their caretakers are not around.
Given the gravity of the consequences, repeated escapes are behavior that has to be met head-on. At the same time you're dealing with the perpetrator and his motives, you need to implement heightened safety measures to render any succeeding breakouts relatively harmless.
Discover the Motives
My own chestnut mare, Fire, began escaping immediately following a flooding incident at the barn. After I rode her that evening, I had no choice but to put her back in her soggy stall. I left her with plenty of hay, her evening grain and a mental apology for having to bed her down in such conditions.
When my husband and I went to tend to the horses the next morning, Fire's stall door was standing open, and she was watching for us in the next aisle. Sometime during the night, she had escaped and opened the goats' stall door, liberating them to roam with her. Thanks to the facility's existing horse-proofing, no harm came of the mare's outing, but it was a behavior we didn't want to encourage. Fire had never attempted to escape prior to the flooding and now seemed intent on leaving that stall whenever she could. The circumstantial link suggested that we try her in a different setting. We made arrangements to move her to another barn with dry stalls, and the escape attempts ceased.
Horses breach their confinement to get away from situations that threaten them or get to circumstances that satisfy them. A confirmed escape artist may start his career in response to an authentic threat to his well-being within a stall or paddock. Yet after a time or two of enjoying the good eating and unfettered socializing that may come with the newfound freedom, the literal or figurative greener grass on the other side of the fence/door becomes the motivation.
If you have an emerging problem and want to nip it in the bud, examine the escaped horse's living situation closely for any environmental or social factors that may be goading him to leave his space. If your horse is continually escaping a particular stall, take a minute to stand in it yourself. Look around and ask what it might be that is making the space so inhospitable. Does it contain a bees' nest or other insect threat? Does the roof leak during downpours? Does a loose piece of roofing or siding make a racket in high winds?
Observe the escaping horse's interactions with his near neighbors in the stable and during turnout to see if he's being intimidated by their threatening behavior. The close company of a bully may put more psychological pressure on a stabled horse than he wants to bear, regardless of the fact that a wall separates the two of them. Horses who escape from paddocks during turnout may be on the receiving end of bites and kicks from aggressive herdmates or frightened by dogs or wildlife that enter the field seeking a chase.
Horses who escape to satisfy a need may be motivated by the most basic drives, starting with hunger and thirst in cases of neglect but also including sexual urges for stallions and for mares in heat. But most commonly, the motivation to escape to something derives from the disparity between equine nature and the restrictions of domesticated life.
As herd animals, horses have an innate urge to be in the company of others of their kind. An insecure individual kept in isolation may apply all his energies to fiddling or muscling his way back to the reassuring companionship of other horses. Separation stress often causes stabled horses to fret rather than eat and rest and turned-out horses to run the fence line rather than graze. Their living spaces as well as their psyches are in disarray, making the motivation for any successful breakouts apparent: They are miserably lonely.
The inactivity of confinement is just as abnormal to horses as social isolation. The combination of pent-up physical energy and the lack of mental stimulation is usually behind ingrained escape behavior. The initial escape occurs because the horse has nothing else to do. In looking for an outlet for his energy, the bored horse begins mouthing the door latch, probably enjoying its clatter along with the oral activity. By chance, the latch releases, the door swings open, and the horse saunters out. Particularly bright horses may need just one success to learn an irreversible lesson. A couple of successes are bound to cement the idea that fiddling with the latch leads to exciting alternatives to the tedium and inactivity of confinement.
In my experience, habitual escapees are most often intelligent horses with a low tolerance for boredom, particularly when kept in stalls with little exercise and/or turnout time. Because of their intelligence, they quickly learn that fiddling with latches causes doors to open and remember the procedure to try again. Well-practiced horses can open standard latches as quickly as you can, and the average horse has about the same adeptness with doorknobs and latches as a 2-year-old child.
Fix What's Fixable
Our rescue organization took in an abandoned horse named Ranger, whose background we did not know because there was no one to give us his history. Shortly after he came to us, he began jumping fences, some as tall as five feet, to get in with mares, whom he then bullied and chased in the pasture. He was a gelding, but we suspected from his studdish behavior that he may have been gelded late in life or possibly had a retained testicle. We tried putting him out with other horses to combat the fence-jumping habit, but he remained an inveterate bully. He bit, kicked and chased the others in the pasture. In the end, Ranger was confined to a stall and used in a lesson program where he got plenty of exercise. He was adopted by a teenager who rides him daily, and he does not seem to be bothered by being stabled during the rest of the day.
After identifying the motives for the breakouts, correct as many of the contributing factors as possible, given your circumstances. Remove or repair the sources of discomfort/threat that you may have uncovered in the escapee's stall or pasture. In confinements where the horse has experienced memorable physical or psychic trauma, correcting the problem may not be enough to erase the association, and you may need to move the horse to a different stall or turnout area.
An escapee seeking companionship will consistently be found near occupied stalls or pastures and be reluctant to leave when you do find him. Take the hint, and provide him with a more natural and satisfying social situation. Horses aren't likely to escape from a field filled with friendly herdmates, and even visual contact with other horses can be enough to ease the insecurity of some isolated animals.
If the problem is a horse who escapes from an enclosure containing other horses, study the group dynamics. A horse at the bottom of the pecking order may take to jumping the fence rather than tolerate the aggression that comes his way. Try moving him to another group, removing the particular horse who bullies him or placing him in a private run, all of which require some flexibility in your turnout arrangements.
When you own just one horse who goes wandering off the property in search of others, find him a companion animal. If you cannot afford to purchase another horse, look into fostering for a rescue organization or taking in a boarder. Companion ponies or goats may fill the social role at reduced upkeep costs.
Preventing boredom-motivated escapes means keeping high-energy horses busy. Stall toys can help during confinement, but horses' responses to them are variable. The best boredom fighter is lots of riding and/or turnout. I've seen many escape artists reformed by regular, consistent work.
Feeding programs also play a role in the motivation of and solution for escapes. Examine the problem horse's ration and body condition to be sure that he's receiving an optimum diet. If a thin horse's breakouts seem always to lead to edibles, he's obviously in need of more feed. Well-fleshed horses who escape to gorge at the feed bin are dangers to themselves and need special care to prevent the fulfillment of their appetites.
In between these extremes are confined horses whose diets supply much more concentrated energy than they actually require and much less roughage than they'd be eating under natural conditions. One antidote to confinement tedium is lots of chewing. For bored horses, cut way back on grain and processed feeds, and increase the hay ration accordingly. Make the roughage consumption even more "natural" either by doling out the hay in many small portions over the course of the day or supplying it in a hay bag or feeder that forces the horse to expend some effort to extract each mouthful.
Read page 2 for tips on selecting latches and making your horse's surroundings safer.
Batten Down the Latches
Most horses learn to unlatch gates by chance or trial and error, but a few seem to learn by watching. For instance, Suzy, a very bright Arabian mare I know, watches her handlers open latches and mimics the movements with her mouth. She's successful enough to keep her owner busy changing the types of latches she uses on her gates. Dancer is another horse I know who learned to open a complicated latch by watching a barnmate escape just a few times. When Dancer succeeded in opening her own door, she used her new skills to open the other stalls as well.
Escape-proofing your stall doors and gates makes good sense even if you don't have a resident Houdini. Door closures that allow horses to hang their heads out into the aisle and paddock/pasture gates that reach no higher than the horse's chest are open invitations for escape efforts. An inquisitive horse who gets his mouth on the door latch can fiddle it open, and a pusher with his head over the door gains needed leverage to muscle his way toward freedom.
When a stall with a sturdy sliding door is available, put the escape artist there, using a latch to secure it in the closed position. Without the latch, the horse may discover he can use his head to shove the slider open. For added security, drill a slanted hole beside the stall door that is accessible when the door is shut. Have a pin hanging by a short chain from the doorframe at that midway point so that it's ready to be inserted into the hole as soon as the door is closed.
If Dutch doors are all you have or all you prefer for your stabling, you can simply shut the top half on an inveterate escaper, but the isolation and lack of ventilation can be drawbacks to such complete confinement. The addition of a door grill or screen on the interior of the doorframe provides an inescapable barrier without impeding air circulation and visual contact with the outside world.
Another Dutch-door strategy is to add a shelf of sorts above the door latch. The protrusion interferes with the horse's ability to reach the hardware but still gives you full access to the latch.
In cases where horses can reach door or gate latches, upgrade your hardware to reduce the likelihood that they'll meet success with any fiddling they might do. At the same time you want to foil the mouthy horse, you need the latch to be readily operable by you, even with one hand. A standard sliding bolt meets the ease-of-operation standard for you, but it's not much of a challenge to bored horses either. You can upgrade its effectiveness by installing an eyebolt in the door face, turned to the vertical and located to fit in the latch handle in its locked position. When the door is closed and the latch in place, attach a snap to the eyebolt, and the horse won't be able to raise the handle or slide back the bolt. The eyebolt alone may be deterrent enough, but snaps add another layer of difficulty that few horses can overcome.
Another strategy for shoring up your existing Dutch-door hardware is the addition of a second latch on the lower part of the door. Beyond the reach of the horse's mouth, these lower closures also help resist the pressure of leaners and pushers. You can install "kick bolts" that you operate with a nudge of a foot, leaving your hands free and your body in a safe, upright position.
Commercial "horse-proof" latches are worth a try for horses who seem to have all the standard equipment figured out. And reinforcing each gate closure with a sturdy chain and snap placed out of the horses' reach is pretty good insurance that turned-out horses will stay where they belong.
Unless they're jumpers. For all the frustration latch fiddlers and door bargers cause, the most difficult breakout behavior to deal with is escape by jumping. The risk of injury to the jumper himself is high, and any entanglements or crashes he experiences can allow other horses to escape as well. Once a horse learns he can jump out of confinement, he may have to be stabled round the clock, except when he's being ridden.
Installing a higher fence around his pasture or paddock is an expensive option for continuing with turnout. Or you can probably deter a jumper by adding a T-arm extension around the top of the existing fence to support a braided electric tape extending two feet to the interior. At the next attempted jump, he'll contact the tape, feel a shock and think better of trying that trick again.
Make Safer Surroundings
Even if you don't have horses regularly on the lam, you can't go wrong by making the surroundings as harm-proof as possible. Take a critical look around your farm to identify and correct situations that could be hazardous to a loose horse.
Lock away all grain. For an unattended horse on the prowl, an open feed room is nirvana, but the devastating result of colic and/or laminitis is pure misery. Secure your feed-room door or grain-bin lids with unbreachable locks.
Separate farm equipment from horses. Horses running mindlessly past manure spreaders, tractors and spring-tooth harrows invite all sorts of ugly wounds. Store your equipment in a closed shed or in a fenced parking area. Then be diligent about putting everything away after each use.
Clear your aisles. A barn area cluttered with pitchforks, wheelbarrows, saddle racks and the like is a minefield of potential injury for a loose horse. And even if the horse isn't injured, he may do some damage to the tack and equipment left out in the open. Keep only essentials, such as halters, leads and possibly blankets, by the stalls. If you don't have a tack room, use an empty stall or build large tack lockers to contain clutter. Place tools in a neat, out of-the-way storage area, such as a shed, empty stall or remote corner of the barn.
Maintain a perimeter fence. Perhaps the greatest danger to any loose horse is access to the world beyond your farm. The solution is to make sure your horsekeeping property can be closed off. This may mean erecting a fence that encircles the entire farm, but if you look closely at your layout, you may be able to put fences between existing structures to create a "safe zone." Of course, perimeter fencing is effective only when all workers and visitors are vigilant about closing the access points whenever they come or go.
This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of EQUUS magazine. Find 12 more ways to keep your horse safe and protect yourself from a possible lawsuit in "Stop that Loose Horse" in the June 2006 issue of EQUUS.