Horse Health Issues Associated With Different Stabling Types 

Researchers evaluated the health differences between horses stabled in open environments with social interaction and free movement and horses stabled in stalls.
horses stabled in an open turnout environment
Keeping horses in familiar turnout groups reduces aggressive interactions and kick frequency. | Adobe Stock

Horse welfare is a major topic in equine management practices. Researchers in Sweden recently evaluated the health differences between horses stabled in open environments with social interaction and free movement and horses stabled in stalls. The study authors combined results from a prospective nine-month period of data and a two-year retrospective study.  

The prospective study looked at 66 horses, 20 of which were previously included in the 69-horse retrospective study. All horses exercised five to six days a week in dressage or show-jumping. They ranged in age from 6-20 years.  

Stabling Options

One stabling option was an active open barn (AOB), in which computer-controlled feeding stations deliver feed to the horses. A single paddock included four areas of straw for lying down, three water sources, and six feeding stalls. The AOB housed only geldings together. The other stabling option was an outdoor single box stall (BOX) housing both geldings and mares with manual feed offered four times a day, free water access, shavings, and two to four hours of turnout in a paddock without feed or water. The researchers looked at the prevalence of wounds, lameness, and colic among these horses.  

Health Events in Prospective Study Horses

In the prospective study over a one-year period, 83% of horses in the AOB group incurred health events compared with 52% in the BOX group. Nearly half of these events did not cause lost training time. 

  • The most common issues for the AOB group were wounds from horse interactions (51%) and wounds from unclear cause (31%).  
  • The most common issues for the BOX group were wounds from an unclear cause (53%), lameness (26%), and colic (5%). 
  • Days of training lost due to health issues did not differ significantly between AOB and BOX horses. 
  • Health events differed significantly relative to location: For AOB horses, 82% occurred during riding vs. 36% for BOX horses. Thirty-three percent of stalled horses experienced a health event in the stall. 

Health Events in Retrospective Study Horses

In the retrospective study of 69 horses, 157 health events occurred over a two-year period. In all stabling options, lameness occurred in 52%, wounds from unclear causes in 29%, and wounds from horse interaction in 11%. AOB and BOX individuals incurred a similar number of events : 71% vs. 73%. 

Overall, the researchers concluded: 

  • Lameness was reported in 18% of AOB horses compared to 26% of BOX horses. The authors noted the benefits of free movement in musculoskeletal structure integrity. 
  • No horse experienced colic in the AOB group compared to 5% of BOX horses. The authors noted that free movement might be favorable to gastrointestinal health. 
  • AOB horses lost fewer days of training (mean of 10 days) than BOX horses (mean of 15 days). 
  • Horses kept in paddocks as familiar pairs did not experience greater numbers of health events. 

Preventing Aggressive Interactions

Regrouping of horses within the AOB system can potentially cause more aggressive interactions with increased kick frequency leading to wounds and/or lameness. Caretakers can create familiarity between horses by placing them in adjacent stalls before turning them out in the paddock, which mitigates friction between individuals.  

Restricted feeding is another reason for aggression. In this study, the AOB horses received a restricted ration compared to stalled horses able to access their feed without competition.  

The size of the AOB stabling affects aggression levels. Horse with 331 m2  (0.08 acres or approximately 3,500 square feet) of space each display less aggression than those in smaller spaces. However, in both the prospective and retrospective studies, acreage was significantly smaller than this recommended size. BOX horses went out in pairs into an area of 225 m2 per horse (0.05 acres or approximately 2,200 square feet) and had fewer health events than AOB horses. 

The study authors concluded it’s best to stable horses in group housing with sufficient space and minimize regrouping of horses when possible. 

Reference

Kjellberg L, Dahlborn K, Roepstorff L, Morgan K. Frequency and nature of health issues among horses housed in an active open barn compared to single boxes – A filed study. Equine Veterinary Journal  Dec 2023; DOI: 10.1111/evj.14054. 

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