Mary Ann Simonds, MA
Horses are “free-ranging social herbivores.” So, from a horse’s perspective, the idea of staying in 12-foot-by-12-
foot stalls is unnatural. However, the “social” part of the horse often overrides the “free-roaming” part, particularly if they are able to stay with their friends all day in a safe space—most likely eating together.
In nature, horses spend much of their free time maintaining social bonds by social behaviors ranging from grazing together and grooming one another to playing and exploring their habitat. Although herd culture may vary depending upon habitat and characteristics, most horse groups spend much of the day eating and traveling, looking for food and water as well as looking out for potential threats.
In the barn, most of these natural elements are eliminated. With no place to go, no threats to worry about, food and water easily accessible, and soft bedding to sleep in, one would think horses would be completely happy. The facts are far more complex. Imagine you are an intelligent and inquisitive person, and you were locked in a closet all day with nothing to do, nothing to read or look at, no one you could have a conversation with or ever ask to scratch your back, maybe once a day taken out, tied up, groomed and run around in a circle for a while, but you were served two to four meals a day—would you be happy? Bored? There are many differences between horses and humans, but the desire and need to have social interaction with others is a key similarity found within all social beings.
In the ideal barn, horses are allowed to socialize with their friends and have the freedom to move inside and out. Studies have shown horses to be very adaptable and demonstrate less stress-related behaviors when they are allowed to have contact (visually and physically) with their friends. (Simonds. M.A., Meyer, Dorothe. (2007). Stress bei Pferde. Stuttgart: Kosmos.) “Vice or stereotypic behaviors,” such as weaving, stall walking, cribbing, or sliding teeth up and down on the bars may be considered problematic behaviors in a barn, but from a horse’s point-of-view are considered “coping skills.” Since these behaviors can have various underlying causes, it is important to determine whether they are due to boredom, stress, or pain.
So what can you do when your only option is to keep your horse in a stall? Here are some suggestions to offset boredom in the barn as well as preventing stress due to confinement.
1. Social Interaction. Allow horses to interact with each other. There is nothing more important to horses than friendships. Ideally horses should have the capacity to mutually groom each other across the fence, but at a minimum they should have space between the stalls to touch noses and see each other.
2.A Room with a View. Horses should have the ability to stick their heads out and see what is going on. Best stall designs include windows at the front and back so horses can check both directions. Seeing a view keeps horses interested in looking out for potential threats, which gives them the ability to fulfill their herd role in the barn. This is often fulfilled by mares, who see themselves as “social facilitators.”
3. Add New Smells. Provide habitat enhancement activity for confined horses by introducing activities and “novel objects.” Since horses use much of their brain for smell and taste they of course love to eat, but they also love to smell. Try putting various new smells in the stall, such as clove, sage, orange, ylang ylang, or cinnamon oil. Make sure you put it on something the horse cannot take a bite out of, since smelling may lead to tasting. Or, you could even put another horse’s manure in the stall. Manure smelling is like giving a horse a personal twominute brief on someone–it tells them everything they need to know about that being.