Log In

Reset Password

NBLA Trail Notes: Your Horse’s Tiny House — A Few Thoughts On Stalls



Text Size

Some horses are outside 24/7 with only a run-in shed for protection from the elements. Others spend the day outside and only return to their stalls at night, and others — especially show horses — are confined to their stalls for much of the time. Regardless of time spent there, the stall is their bedroom, dining room, living room and, ahem, bathroom. How can we make it great for them in order to optimize their physical and mental well-being, all within our relative budgets? There are so many variables and as owners, we each have limitations on what is possible. Many of us board our horses at commercial stables and have little say in how a stall is set up and managed, but if you do have some flexibility, here is a small sampler of considerations.

Any stall needs good ventilation for optimal horse health. This means doors at each end of the barn, roomy stalls, and fans to circulate air. Fans reduce dust and discourage flying insects. The experts recommend a 12x12 foot stall for the average sized horse. Most barns in our area are not heated in winter. As long as they have forage to feed their internal furnace, horses do just fine, using their own body heat to stay comfortable. If feasible, windows are great because they not only provide ventilation, but also a view that reduces boredom.

Your horse will go out of its way to injure itself on anything you put in the stall, or so it seems. Like toddlers, their environment has to be safety-proofed. That means no sharp edges on hardware, no hayracks hung so low that a hoof can get caught in it, and no splintery wood. A friend of mine had a horse that suffered a deep cut inches from its eye after shoving its face into a bucket that had a protruding metal edge. Thankfully, no lasting damage was done. Horses can be fed their hay on the ground or in rack or nets. I personally feel that ground feeding is more natural for the horse, but it does raise the possibility of manure or urine ending up on their dinner.

There are many types of bedding that can be used in a stall to provide a comfortable sleeping surface, as well as absorption of urine and manure. Availability, ease of use, and storage are important considerations. By far the most common are wood shavings or straw. Less common bedding materials, due to price and availability, are wood pellets, shredded paper, and peat. Wood shavings are a by-product of lumber mills, and when kiln dried are excellent at absorbing moisture. The light color of shavings makes it easy to target wet spots and manure. Most wood shavings are from pine, an abundant soft wood. Shavings come in either large or small size and are a matter of personal preference. Shavings are very good at soaking up urine. It is important to avoid black walnut or maple shavings because they can be toxic to horses. Cedar smells great but the oil can sometimes cause irritation. Pine is common and safe.

Straw is simply the stalks of grain plants from which the nutritious seeds have been removed. Usual plants used for straw are wheat, oat, and barley. Straw is interesting; it does not absorb moisture as readily as shavings, but has advantages. A thick mat of straw provides a nice barrier between the horse and their waste. A surprise finding in a 2020 research study in Germany found that horses bedded on straw have eating habits more closely aligned with horses in a natural state. A horse that is not confined will graze most of the time, which regulates their intake of food and keeps them occupied. By providing edible bedding, the study found that horses more closely mimic free range animals: they nibble at the straw, eat their hay more slowly, and do not as often exhibit non-natural behaviors such as weaving and cribbing. This could result in fewer incidences of colic and ulcers. Straw is safe to eat and can add beneficial roughage. Foaling barns use straw because it does not stick to a wet newborn like shavings do, which interferes with the mother’s licking. Unfortunately, straw — like hay — produces a lot of dust. Dust contributes significantly to respiratory problems in both horses and their care givers.

Stall mats are made of hard rubber and provide an insulating, clean, and relatively soft surface for your horse. If the underlying surface of the stall is hard, like concrete, mats are a very good idea. Stalls with mats are easier to clean and provide comfort for your horse to the extent that they will probably be more inclined to lie down and sleep. Aside from comfort and cleanliness, matted stalls generally need less bedding, provide good footing, and prevent digging. Mats probably also help prevent lameness. They are typically three-quarter inch in thickness and come in many sizes. Interlocking mats are like puzzle pieces that easily fit together and sections can be removed for cleaning. Straight-edge mats tend to curl up over time and bedding can accumulate beneath them, creating an uneven and uncomfortable surface. Drainage is a consideration. Urine will travel down below the mats so a substrate that drains — such as clay, earth or gravel, or a good drainage system in a concrete floor — is key. As an aside, in researching this article, I found that horse stall mats are very popular in home gyms.

Stall toys help alleviate boredom and may take the place of less-desired behaviors, such as cribbing, pacing, or weaving. Some horses just have no interest in toys, but others really do enjoy them. It’s like their cell phone: providing entertainment on a boring afternoon. A hanging ball can be fun to tug and knock about, or a rotating treat that the horse licks might also amuse your horse. Make sure any toy you purchase is designed for horses so you know it will be tough enough to withstand their attention.

Horses are generally healthier and happier outside with their equine friends than confined in a box, but we humans have our own agendas and stalls are primarily for our convenience. It is our responsibility to make them as comfortable and safe as we can.

Tracy Van Buskirk is a 37 year resident of Newtown and President of the Newtown Bridle Lands Association, at www.nblact.com, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed in 1978 to foster an interest in horseback riding as well as preserving, protecting, and maintaining riding and hiking trails in the community. Horses have always been a part of her life. She owns a small bay quarter horse named Little Bear.

Comments are open. Be civil.

Leave a Reply