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What is the Best Way to Keep Horses in Domesticity?

By Christina Manian

October 2021


If you’re a horse lover, you may have seen the equestrian portion of the Olympics this summer. Background footage of the sport showed spotless horses with shining metal shoes in immaculate stalls waiting for their turn to compete. Maybe you are a horse owner yourself and ensure that your horse is put to bed in a stall of fresh shavings every night. Or possibly your horse lives outside 24/7 with an equine family of his own. There’s many boarding options and most horse owners want the absolute best for their companions. But what does evidence tell us about the best way to keep horses in a domestic setting?


When looking at the welfare of any animal, the gold standard is to look at the Five Domains. The Five Domains subjectively examines the animal’s experience and provides a tool for assessment of the animal’s overall positive welfare. The Five Domains include:

  1. Nutrition

  2. Environment

  3. Health

  4. Behavior

  5. Mental State

Here we’ll take a brief look into each of these domains to help inform what the most optimal domestication setting is for horses.




From an evolutionary and biological perspective, wild horses graze for 16 to 20 hours a day. This is a far cry from what many traditionally boarded horses experience. Often, horses that mostly live in stalls will have two to four feedings per day of usually the same grain or hay. They are foraging animals, meaning that horses have a drive to sort through different food options and choose which they’d like to eat. “I look at nutrition more as an opportunity to create enrichment for horses and access to forage,” Sarah Matlock, an equine behavioral scientist and professor at Colorado State University states. She goes on to talk about how horses are nocturnal animals and are observed in the wild to do most of their foraging overnight, “It's problematic that we sort of disregard that and disregard that they're going for eight hours a day [or night] or longer without food in their stomachs.” Gastrointestinal ulcers are increasingly prevalent in domesticated horses, seen in up to 60 to 90% of adult horses. When looking for causation, one study found that horses fed 20 times over the course of a day had significantly lower rates of gastric ulcers than those fed only twice in a 24 hour period.




While many traditional horse boarding environments prioritize shelter as a way to meet a horse’s environmental needs in the way of stalls or runs, this has likely gone to an extreme at the detriment of the horse. Sarah emphasizes, “I think confinement is what often leads to abnormal behaviors and then to stereotypic behaviors [like irritability, reactivity, and cribbing].” Isolation plays a large role here, as horses are herd animals. This means that they should be living in the same space as another animal at all times, which is not possible if a horse lives in a stall.




As we saw just one of the health impacts nutritional management can have on horse health, environment can have serious ramifications as well. If a horse is spending any significant amount of time in a stall, this can lead to a slew of health problems. Horses are athletes and have evolved to be moving much of their lives. “[Once horses] started being in confined environments, they started exercising less and living on softer terrain, this led to their hooves becoming weaker,” Philip Himanka, a well-known barefoot farrier in Colorado and the greater national and international horse community shares, “this caused the need to start supporting horse’s hooves with rigid structures [like metal horse shoes], which cause the internal structures of the hooves and related body systems to stop working properly.” The hooves are one of the major drivers of healthy blood flow in horses and metal horse shoes significantly disrupt this regulatory mechanism. In fact, shod horses, on average, have a 10% higher heart rate than barefoot horses to compensate for the reduced blood flow contribution of the hooves. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the negative impacts metal shoes can have on a horse. They range from decreased shock absorption resulting in increased risk for joint damage to decreased proprioception, decreased traction...the list goes on.


Isolative environments can have further negative effects on a horse’s health, including increased risk of lameness, increased risk of colic, and negative impacts on sleep, a vital component of overall health and recovery. Horses need much less sleep than humans, ranging from 2-10 hours per day depending on who you ask, and much of it can be done standing. However, horses need between 20 and 40 minutes of rapid eye movement or REM sleep per day, and this can only be achieved while laying down. Sarah Matlock explains, “In feral populations, horses rely on their band to feel safe when they lay down and usually you'll see one horse that stays up, not reaching REM sleep so they can be that alarm if there's something dangerous. They truly rely on each other for that.” Oftentimes horses in stalls can have difficulty reaching REM sleep because they don’t feel safe laying down due to isolation or past negative experiences of being cast or stuck and unable to get up after laying down in the stall.


Behavior and Mental State


When looking to ensure that horses' behavioral and mental health are supported, Sarah Matlock expresses “Typical domestication settings have created barriers and prevented a lot of what keeps them thriving.” By assessing the horse’s nutritional, environmental, health, and social needs; she believes we can prevent many behavioral and mental health issues from arising in the first place.


Improvement Opportunities


When asked what she feels the most optimal boarding situation is for horses in domesticity, Sarah states, “they're out in turnout, they have free access to forage and water, they have buddies, and they have shelter.”


Space can be a major issue when it comes to keeping horses, especially considering the impacts horses can have on land. Elizabeth Riecks, horse trainer, founder of Hatha Equus, and operations director at Wildsong Ranch, one of the first boarding facilities in the front range to offer paddock paradise, expands on this. “Horses can do major damage on the land as they're meant to be on 1000s of acres and we keep them in five [for example]. When horses are in confined pasture they graze down the forage completely, including the seed. Grazing down leads to inability for forage to regrow and allows for infestation of weeds and rodents, like Prairie dogs.” This is one of the reasons she’s so passionate about paddock paradise, a natural horse boarding concept created by Jaime Jackson based on his research of feral horses. Paddock paradise consists of a large track where horses live outside 24/7 in herds with access to shelter, water, and forage 24 hours a day. This system is intended to mimic the migration patterns and behavioral environments of wild horses and helps to rehabilitate horses from injury, maintain a healthy body weight, and thrive barefoot. When asked about some of the benefits Elizabeth has seen, she expresses, “Above all, the psychological benefit of being in an environment where they have the majority of their natural needs met: they have plenty of movement all day long, they have unlimited food, and they have social relationships.”

If you don’t have the space or capabilities for your horses to live outside in a herd environment, there are still some changes you can make. If your horses live in a stall or run, try to provide them with 24/7 access to food. Help them meet their foraging needs by placing several types of hay in the stall. If possible, provide them with as much turn out as you can and if not, commit to walking them everyday for as long as possible. If your horse needs additional hoof support, explore less rigid hoof protection like composite shoes, rubber shoes, glue-on boots, or temporary boots for hard footing and riding. While keeping horses in confined environments can be a means to conveniently keep horses protected or on smaller properties, knowing how they’ve evolved and what their biological needs are can help inform better decisions on how they live their day to day lives.

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