I wish I could say my experiment with group housing for our two ponies came from a virtuous desire to do what was best for their health based on the latest equine research. In truth, putting the ponies together in one large stall was about necessity, about working with what we had. And what we had in 2010 was one large, wide-open space in a long-neglected pre-Civil War stone bank barn.
We had just moved to our small farm in southeastern Pennsylvania and were eager to bring Cupcake and Falcon home.
But our barn was little more than walls, windows without glass, and a roof--- and a barely functioning roof at that. “They are ponies---they are tough,” I told my family. We threw up nylon stall guards in the doorways of a huge stone room that had probably housed cows or pigs back in the day. We put down bedding, brought in hay and water, and led the ponies in as a cold rain fell in sheets outside. Cupcake and Falcon looked at one another, walked around and started eating.
“It’s just like a big run-in,” I told my husband confidently. My daughter the hunter/jumper rider was less optimistic. “This is weird,” she said. “When can we put in stalls?”
But we never did put in those stalls. What started as a temporary arrangement became permanent because it worked so well. Our ponies were calm and better behaved, on the ground and in the ring. Today, a growing body of research helps to explain why.
Very simply, the box stalls that may seem cozy and comfortable to us are all wrong for our beloved horses---too small and too solitary for herd animals who need to be on the move. Of course, we’ve long known that horses mentally and physically benefit from continual pasture turnout with a congenial herd. But researchers have discovered that when full turnout isn’t an option, making a few small but specific changes can transform a stall into a healthier and more hospitable home for a horse.
What the research says
Some of the most compelling evidence related to how confinement affects the well-being of horses comes from a study conducted at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) in England. The researchers measured the physiological and behavioral stress responses of 16 school horses when they were kept in four different housing situations for five-day periods:
• “Group housing, full contact”---four horses were turned out in an outdoor paddock and allowed full physical, visual and auditory contact with each other.
• “Paired housing, full contact”---pairs of horses were kept together in an open space within a barn adjacent to indoor single box stalls. The paired horses had full contact with each other as well as visual and auditory contact with the horses in the stalls.
• “Single housing, semi-contact”--- horses were kept in individual box stalls with walls low enough to allow visual, auditory and tactile communication with their neighbors and they were also able to see horses stabled nearby.
• “Single housing, no contact”--- horses were kept in individual box stalls with solid walls that did not allow any contact with other horses.
Throughout the study period, each horse’s stress levels were gauged through measurements of eye temperatures and fecal corticosterone metabolite analysis, which indicates adrenal activity. The researchers found that when the horses were kept in the most isolated housing (individual box stalls), “adrenal activity was high, which was demonstrated by high levels of fecal corticosterone,” says Kelly Yarnell, PhD, of NTU, who headed the study.
“This is an important outcome, as physiological changes are some- thing that the horse cannot mask in the way that they can with behavioral signs,” adds Yarnell. “Chronic or highly repetitive activation of the stress response can be detrimental to the reproductive, immune and digestive systems, in addition to horses’ mental well-being.”
Although most horses accept and adapt to less-than-optimal living situations, the evidence is mounting that it’s time to redesign the basic box stall.
Horsekeepers in Switzerland already are: In response to research like Yarnell’s, the Swiss government in 2008 enacted equine protection laws that mandated minimum sizes for box stalls and established requirements for access to or opportunities for social interaction among horses. In the years since, many Swiss equine operations have remodeled their barns so that the horses kept within them can have contact with their neighbors.
Meanwhile, NTU has made horse-friendly changes to its own barn designs. “At NTU, we could see in our observations that the group housing was beneficial. Then by taking physiological measures, we could demonstrate that housing that included social opportunities for horses also reduced their physiological stress responses. So although previously we could surmise that this was better for them, the physiological measures provided the evidence,” Yarnell explains. “While I am sympathetic to the concerns of owners who choose to house their horses alone, as an equine welfare scientist, I cannot ignore the findings of the work carried out at NTU and elsewhere.”
On American shores
Here in the United States, horse barns and box stalls haven’t changed much in the last 100 years. Few horses live in total isolation, of course, but stall confinement with limited turnout is still common, as are behavioral problems, respiratory issues, digestive diseases and other ills associated with that lifestyle. Why?
There are many reasons, not the least of which is the disruption and expense of replacing or retrofitting structures that have been in use for decades. And part of the explanation may be plain old resistance to change ---the “We’ve always done it this way and it has worked fine” mindset---is a stubborn reality in any type of business. But there are practical considerations, too, especially for show and sport operations that need to protect valuable animals from injuries and even blemishes.
Yarnell acknowledges there’s a risk that horses kept together may jostle or injure each other but in her view it is outweighed by the benefits that communal living offers horses. “I understand that if a horse sustains an injury and misses a competition season that this can have negative and long-term consequences,” she says. “But as a scientist, I would want to examine the incidence of injury due to turnout with other horses versus the incidence of injury sustained in competition.”
What’s more, she says, some commonsense adjustments can make a communal living arrangement viable in a variety of horsekeeping situations. “One of the main problems with trying to implement this type of management in a boarding barn is that these operations house a number of unfamiliar animals whose owners manage them under different systems and time-scales,” Yarnell says. “Compromise is needed in many cases. But providing as much social contact as is practically possible is undoubtedly beneficial. Hopefully, the growing evidence will help to promote a more horse-friendly approach to housing.”
A few simple changes
What’s the ideal, then, based on current research? Essentially, full turnout in a large pasture, with multiple hay feeding stations and a communal barn or run-in shed that offers respite from the sun, insects, wind or cold. The pasture and shelter must be large enough to avoid overgrazing, overcrowding and formation of mud in areas where the horses tend to congregate. For a three-horse herd, the minimum size of a run-in shed would be 12 feet by 36 feet.
But if that’s not possible, research suggests that even small changes in stall confinement can have positive effects on a horse’s health and happiness.
For example, many Swiss horse operations have made existing barns healthier for horses by simply removing some of the bars between enclosures, lowering the height of stall walls or adding windows between stalls. (This measure, Yarnell emphasizes, can only be contemplated “provided the horses are neighborly.”)
Other popular arrangements in Europe include housing compatible horses in pairs in double-sized stalls, as well as group barns, which the Spanish Riding School’s stud farm uses for its broodmares, with mares going into private box stalls only at foaling time. Even just maximizing group turnout hours and reducing solo stall time significantly lowers stress and frustration in horses.
Yarnell and other experts do not minimize the importance of compatibility when it comes to group housing arrangements. “The horses we have in social housing at NTU are carefully chosen based on past experience and observation of their relationships,” she says. “Horses are herd animals, and they will have disagreements, so I think it’s a case of weighing up the advantages and disadvantages. If you have two or more horses who get along when turned out in their paddock then they may be the best candidates for group housing when housing is necessary.”
Providing hay at multiple locations and implementing other conventional management techniques commonly used to keep the peace in herds is important as well, says Yarnell. This also applies, she says, when adding new herd members---introductions must be done carefully and incrementally, with horses allowed to get to know one another over a fence for several days before sharing a space.
As for my little farm, we eventually brought home a third pony, Strider, which required us to rethink our communal housing arrangement. Because of the space and layout of our old barn, the new pony could not simply become another occupant in the space shared by Cupcake and Falcon. So, despite the accidental success of our group stall, we ended up building a solo space for our third pony. However, based on what we had learned with our other two, we made sure the new space would address Strider’s psychological as well as physical needs: We made the stall very large, about 12-feet by 14-feet, with no bars, two windows that open, and half-walls that allow Strider to extend his head and neck out to see his nearby herdmates. With as much turnout as can be managed in all sorts of weather, our three ponies are a thriving and harmonious little herd.
About the author: Nancy Moffitt is a lifelong horsewoman, writer and editor from Chester County, Pennsylvania. Vice president and board member of the Freedom Horse Show Series, she also judges open and schooling shows.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #378)