Imagine your friend wants to get a dog. They've decided on a larger, high energy breed of dog that you know will need a lot of exercise and be higher maintenance. They've decided this knowing that with their busy lifestyle, they will be needing to kennel the dog anywhere from 20-24 hours a day every single day. They really want the dog, so they plan on getting it regardless. How does this make you feel? Most sane animal lovers would say: "do not get a dog if you do not have time for it, especially such a high energy breed." But, what about if we reverse the roles and applied this to horses, who often times are doing just that for their entire lives, isolated in the horse version of a kennel: a stall.
I've heard every excuse in the book. "This is the only option we have here" or "I ride her for an hour each day!" or "I turn her out in the arena for half an hour!" , "She gets to go and hand graze for 20 minutes each day", "I don't want him to get hurt!" or "He doesn't like being outside, he loves his stall!" and none of this is enough and it is so disheartening to hear people continually trying to justify this type of treatment for years on end for the entirety of the horse's life.
We have more than enough information that tells us all we need to know about the detriments of depriving horses from turnout, especially on a year round, 24/7 basis. We also have evidence supporting that turnout doesn't involve a heightened risk of injury (McGreevy, 2013). Science today tells us that excessive stalling is on of the root causes of stereotypic behaviours like cribbing, weaving and wood chewing. None of these occur in the wild (wood chewing is a slight exception, though the extent at which it occurs in the wild is nowhere near the beaver-like desperation of bored horses in stalls). We also know that excessive stalling causes poor circulation, impedes digestion and heightens the risk of digestive ailments like colic astronomically. It can also cause respiratory issues, due to the fact that the horses are standing in the urine and feces for much of the day even if the stalls are cleaned daily. Stalling also can create anxiety responses when horses are eventually turned out. Imagine if you were locked in a tiny room for your whole life only to one day be thrown out into a huge open area by yourself or even with several other people after never having gotten the chance to properly socialize. This would be stressful, would it not? But, no, with horses, far too often we see the anxiety response to the sudden introduction of turnout being written off as "they just don't like being outside!" which is, frankly, ridiculous.
No horse comes out of the womb fearing the outdoors, wide open spaces and other horses. It's quite the opposite, actually. As flight animals, they're naturally more wary of enclosed spaces and being isolated because this would put them at a safety risk if predators were around. Humans introduce them to these abnormalities and they adapt and realize that they are not in danger. Humans are also the root cause of anxiety in relation to turnout because of our practices with keeping horses. We cause these anxiety responses by disallowing horses to practice natural behaviours. By forcing them into isolation in small quarters and then being shocked when they don't react properly when thrown out into a completely different scenario. As humans, we also don't often give them a good shot at adapting to turnout situations after being stalled excessively.
People far too often give up and say that the horse doesn't like being outside or that they'll hurt themselves and so on. They're impatient and expect the horse to settle over the course of minutes or hours or a day when sometimes, in extreme cases, this can be a long term battle of gradual introduction and working the horse through the anxiety. If only we had the patience and care to introduce horses to turnout in the manner we do with things like trailering anxiety or fear of jumping spooky jumps. People don't just give up on those things after a day or so and say the horse just "doesn't like it" or that they won't get over it, now do they? Perhaps, selfish reasoning is more of a motivator than the actual health of our beloved animals. I sure hope not.
Now, this isn't to say that you don't love your horse if they don't have the ideal turnout situation. I'm certain people do. Many of them just are not aware of the detriments of over-stalling or they don't want to become aware. They listen to idols like trainers or barn owners who ignore the facts just because it's easier or because they don't want to believe them, but, there is FAR too much information proving that this type of care is simply inadequate to continue to ignore it. Look up the multitude of studies that show how stalling heightens certain health issues, how stalled horses see huge increases in stereotypic behaviours. There is so much out there that it is so easy to find and impossible to write off as fake or coincidental. There's peer reviewed studies on these types of things that are incredibly easy to access. We all owe it to our horses to do our homework and learn instead of putting our heads in the sand just to make ourselves feel better about the care we provide. That's selfishness and it's really not what animal ownership should be about.
Now, to clarify, stalls aren't the devil. But, we need to rethink how much stall time is acceptable and the mechanics of stalls in general. Studies have demonstrated that stalls where horses can see and touch each other through the bars drastically reduce stress responses. So, stalls with metal bars or grates or even group housing (less common in North America, but a cool concept) should become commonplace over stalls where they cannot easily see or touch each other. Also, the size of them should be increased. 12 x 12 should be viewed as a minimum. Horses should be able to easily lay down and roll without risk of being cast. Best case scenario would be a stall with a paddock or field attached as if the horse ever begins feeling anxious or stressed, instead of pawing, weaving, cribbing or chewing, they can walk themselves outside and escape the indoors as they please.
As for stall time, horses should ideally, in my opinion, always have the choice whether to be indoors or out. Especially for horses who have anxiety in turnout, this would be an excellent solution. Provide a horse with a stall that opens up into a large paddock or field and they can let themselves in and out as they please, thereby never developing stall anxiety in the first place or if they are anxious, they can eventually start to allow themselves outside to eat and drink and build up to being more comfortable outside at their own pace. Now, if this is not available, I think people should be mindful of the fact that stalling should be kept to a minimum. If your horse spends most of their day stalled, this should be viewed as being not ideal and steps should be taken to change or make the situation better for the horse. If people are ignorant of the detriments of over stalling, they're not likely to make the steps to make it as bearable as possible for the horse.
None of us are perfect and over the course of our lives as horse people, we will make mistakes. Horses I've had in the past haven't gotten enough turnout due to my lack of education on the importance of turnout. Once moved somewhere where they did get enough, the differences in their personalities was huge. My Arab, who used to always be very spooky while riding (even in arenas he'd been ridden in daily for years), became a far calmer horse who was even beginner safe when on daily field turnout. He became a far more pleasant ride than he used to be. Milo has been lucky enough to have field turnout and an in/out stall for the entire time I've owned him, but the changes in his demeanour are huge when he has to be stalled for longer than a few hours. Even in an in/out paddock with no field turnout, he is a MUCH different horse if kept out of a large, open area for too long. He becomes much more difficult to handle on the ground, hotter and even crankier. The benefits of turnout are extremely evident to me just by looking at the differences in my horses' dispositions when allowed turnout versus when they don't have enough. Some horses can cope better than others with being stabled, but even ones who present no outward signs when in stalls or during ground work, have had a significant reduction in undesirable behaviours under saddle and just an improvement in overall happiness. So, seeing that as well as knowing how much healthier it is for them to be out tells me all that I need to know.
We need to rethink a lot of how we've been doing things in the horse world. Horse people are resistant to change, but we should start with re-evaluating how we've been keeping our horses. More and more, the beautiful open concept barns that allow horses to interact with each other are becoming more popularized and that's an excellent start. But, we need to change people's entire viewpoints to what constitutes a beautiful barn or "horsey paradise" because in all honesty, beautiful and aesthetically pleasing stalls are nice for the human eye and they are nicer for the horses if they are more open BUT, the best thing for your horse and your biggest focus when looking for barns should be decent turnout.
No horse should be subjected to a lifetime behind bars, only to be brought out for ridden work. Year round, 24/7. That's not fair. They're not here solely for our pleasure. If we're going to use them for sport, we owe it to them to allow them their own free time to do what they want. We owe it to them to allow them to express natural behaviours and to be able to move around freely, more so than they can do in the standard sized stall. We owe it to them to allow them some socialization with other horses, even if it's just over a fence. We owe them a better lifestyle than what seems to be the standard in a lot of cities. We need to make this known, so we can start doing what we can to improve their lifestyles. This isn't about expecting an immediate change, but about educating people so they do their best to improve equine living in any manner that they can.
McGreevy, Paul. Equine Behavior: a Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. Elsevier, 2013.
Here are some other good reads:
Behavior of Stabled Horses Affected by Meal Feeding Frequency and Roughage
Stereotypic Behaviour in Horses
When in Doubt, Turn Out
Consequences of Stall Confinement
The Short-Term Effects of Increasing Meal Frequency in Stalled Horses
Are Stabled Horses at Increased Risk of Colic?
Horses Stabled Alone (Stress Study)
Foraging Enrichment for Stabled Horses: effects on behaviour and selection
Air Quality for Stabled Horses
Cross-sectional study in Compulsive Behaviour
Staying Sane on Stall Rest
The Equine Digestive System
To Stall or Not to Stall
Weighing Your Options: Stall or Pasture
Importance of Turning out your Horse
Stall Versus Acreage
Keeping Stalled Horses Happy
Study on Stereotypic Behaviours