The horse has evolved to live in open grasslands, free from the confines of stalls, fences and humans. However, the domestic horse is now dependent on humans to provide food and housing to survive. In an attempt to create proper living spaces for horses, humans sometimes adopt an anthropomorphic attitude, shielding the horse from the “undesirable” natural elements of rain, snow, cold and heat.
“It is ill advised to create a ‘human environment’ for a horse. Natural conditions…contribute to health and disease control. An appropriate attitude toward horse raising is one whose environment approximates nature’s most closely” (Dix in Roberts, 1996, 34).
The horse can thrive very easily kept on full pasture turnout as long as it still gets daily attention and handling. Its natural environment is at grass, and humans should make every attempt to provide pasture time for every horse on the farm. There are many advantages for the “grass-kept horse” (Brown and Powell-Smith, 1994, 201) over horses kept in stalls. Less straw and hay is used, reducing farm expenses and stall-cleaning labor. The horse walks nearly two miles each hour, more or less depending on the space available, reducing the need for supplemental exercise. Grass-kept horses often remain more calm and easy to handle, as their minds are saved from the boredom experienced by stalled horses. The constant supply of fresh air also reduces contagious respiratory infections and dust exposure, keeping the horse in better overall health. However, there are disadvantages as well. It is harder to keep a horse in optimal condition, as it may get too fat from the spring and summer grasses, and too thin from reduced winter forage if not supplemented by hay and concentrates. The horse will tend to stay wet and muddy in the spring and winter, exposing its skin to a variety of dermatitis. It is also more difficult to monitor food and water intake in the grass-kept horse, which is the first step in recognizing illness. Many farms utilize a combined system of stabling and turnout. If this is used, the horse should receive at least two hours of turnout twice a day to benefit from the pasture.
When designing paddocks (the area where the horse is turned out), it is important to consider the topography and layout of the land. Level land should be sought after ahead of steep fields that will stress exuberant Thoroughbreds and foals. Drainage is also of utmost importance. Muddy or waterlogged areas around gates, water troughs and feeders reduce edible pasture and set the horse up for hoof and leg problems. Fencing that is built especially to contain horses is the most expensive, but most necessary feature to consider when designing paddocks. There are several synthetic materials such as plastic, vinyl and electric wire that make adequate fencing. However, traditional four-board (five-board for stallions) fencing is arguably the best for horses. While you don’t want your horses to get out of the field, dramatic events sometimes take place that can cause a horse to panic and run through the fence. A material that breaks free, such as wood, is preferable to a synthetic material that doesn’t release, perhaps injuring your horse. It is for that very reason that barbed-wire fencing should never be used to contain horses. A panicked horse will be shred to pieces within seconds if entangled in a barbed-wire fence. Fresh, clean drinking water must be available at all times, with the troughs properly sited and “purpose-made” (Ambrosiano and Harcourt, 1997). Old bathtubs, while used frequently, are not safe water troughs.
Horses can easily graze a small paddock to dirt if the owner does not take precautions to conserve grass. There are several ways pastures can be maintained to provide nutritious grazing all year long. Practicing good grass husbandry can go a long way in improving the quality of available pasture (Brown and Powell-Smith, 1994). Pastures should be regularly cleaned of manure droppings, as horses will not graze contaminated areas. Droppings can either be picked up on a weekly basis or broken up and spread over the field using a lightweight chain harrow. Each horse requires at least one acre of pasture; overstocking should be avoided so that the pasture is not grazed prematurely. Large paddocks can be divided into smaller lots so that the horses can be rotated every few weeks, allowing overgrazed lots to rest. Weeds often take over struggling pastures, which requires either fertilization or “mixed grazing” (Brown and Powell-Smith, 1994, 198). Mixed grazing calls for the introduction of cattle or sheep into the pasture; they eat the weeds horses avoid and any worms contained in horse manure. Poor pastures can always be improved. However, this aspect of horse management is often overlooked.
If provided with water and quality pasture, a grass-kept horse will need little attention to survive the summer months. A three-sided shelter should be provided for the rainy seasons as well as in areas of the country that experience harsh winters. A tree stand along one side of a pasture will reduce the chilling affects of the prevailing winds and will also provide a shady area for horses to escape summer mosquitoes.
While keeping horses on grass may be the ideal situation, there are situations where stabling is absolutely necessary. Extremely refined breeds of horses, such as Thoroughbreds, are not always able to handle natural environments. They may run the fence line continuously, not get along with pasture-mates or even run through the fence in a panic to reach the security of their stall. Sick and injured horses sometimes require stall confinement, as do some mares and foals. It is therefore necessary to provide adequate facilities to accommodate these horses, while still incorporating features of the natural environment. There are several factors to consider when designing stables: ventilation, drainage and durable material (Roberts, 1996). Lighting and stall design should also receive careful consideration (Ambrosiano and Harcourt, 1997).
Opinions of the proper amount of ventilation needed for a stable has changed considerably over time. In the late 1800’s stables were made as airtight as possible, with all the doors and windows completely shut at all times. The general attitude was that fresh air was harmful and should be avoided. “People never thought of admitting fresh air into a stable; they had no notion of its use. In fact, they regarded it as highly pernicious and did all they could to exclude it” (Birch in Roberts, 1996, 35). That opinion has shifted over the last century and people now recognize that dust, mold, humidity, bacteria and ammonia are harmful to the horse’s respiratory tract. “Good, planned air flow is necessary not only for your horse’s health but also for yours and that of employees you have” (Ambrosiano and Harcourt, 1997, 60). Natural ventilation can be optimized in three ways (Roberts, 1996). The stack effect causes warm air to rise as cool air replaces it, causing air movement. Aspiration enhances the stack effect, as it involves the movement of air across a roof. The moving air draws the rising warm air out of the stable and sucks cool air into the stable. Designing air vents into the roof and lower sections of the barn will allow the stack effect and aspiration to work effectively. Perflation refers to a cross-breeze effect as air blows horizontally through barn opposing barn doors and windows. Placing the stables on top of a hill, facing the opening toward the prevailing wind, including several types of windows, doors and vents, planting or removing vegetation and trees and purchasing exhaust fans all work to enhance or limit the amount of ventilation your barn receives.
Proper drainage is important to protect the hooves and legs from infection and to reduce ammonia fumes from the 1.2 gallons of urine a Thoroughbred produces each day. The decision as to where to position the stables has a great deal of influence on the stable’s draining capability. If built into the side of a hill or in a valley, no indoor drainage design will fully protect the stable from flooding and chronic dampness. The stable should be built on level, well-drained soil. Deep layers of sand, limestone, chalk or granite serve as excellent sub-soil materials. The sub-soil should be topped with at least six inches of fine gravel or stone dust then covered with dirt. A tamping tool should be used to slope the floors to a center drain or to the edge of the stall, where external drains or trenches can carry urine away. While complex drainage systems installed underneath the stalls may provide excellent drainage, they are extremely prone to clogging. Less expensive and less problematic options, such as sloping the floor to three degrees, may be just as effective.
Once the sub floor has been installed, a layer of bedding can be added. Several options exist for bedding horse stalls. Many prefer using traditional straw which does not absorb much urine. Instead, it allows the urine to pass through to whichever drainage system that is being utilized. Another option is wood shavings, which absorb a great deal of urine. Saturated wood shavings must be removed from the stall every day. Newer bedding materials are just coming to the market including a compressed recycled paper pellet. The pellets absorb moisture, swelling up and turning into soft, fluffy material. The pellets reduce waste, compost quickly and work extremely well with rubber mats. This makes pellets an excellent choice when more sophisticated drainage options are unavailable.
Years of careful planning may be wasted if the materials used to build the stables are inappropriate. “The materials used to construct it should be the best affordable, as they must be able to withstand the daily abuse of 1200-pound animals” (Roberts, 1996, 49). Wood and masonry are the most likely materials to be used for the stable. Masonry stables are the most durable and fire retardant, although they tend to hold dampness more so than wood. This can be compensated with extra ventilation measures. Wood barns are the most popular in the Ohio region (Roberts, 1996). They are less expensive and less durable than masonry, but with proper care and maintenance, wood barns can last for the lifetime of the farm operation. The materials used to build the frame and exterior surfaces of the barn must be able to stand up to years of weather. However, the inside materials will face far more abusive elements, such as teeth and hooves. The size of the stalls will vary depending on what type of horses will inhabit them. The average Thoroughbred will require at least a twelve by twelve foot stall to comfortably move and safely lie down. The stall walls should be made of wood concrete. If concrete block is used, a layer of wainscoting should be applied to cushion the impact of kicking hooves. Heavy gauge metal strips can then be attached to areas where the horse could easily chew the wood. There are several materials available for stall door construction. Wood doors are the traditional standard, but heavy metal screens are becoming more popular for the increased lighting and ventilation they provide (Ambrosiano and Harcourt, 1996). Doors can swing or slide open, depending on the preference of the owner. However, a door should never swing into the stall, as it can get caught on bedding or squeeze the horse against the wall. Horse-proof door latches are extremely important, as the horse’s dexterous upper lip can be as versatile as human hands, easily opening stall door latches.
Designing a facility to house horses can be approached in several different ways. The horse is said to have three basic instincts: to survive, to nourish and to reproduce (Brown and Smith, 1994). Stable and pasture design should concentrate on satisfying those instincts and accommodating the special needs domestic horses now have. The optimal stable design would incorporate all the elements listed above while providing for the convenience and accessibility of the human caretakers. The optimal stable design is not always available; many times the farm manager must make do with the present facilities. As long as the existing barn provides some degree of ventilation has proper drainage and is safe for the horses, farm managers can improvise to accommodate any special needs.