Question: I have a new gelding, he’s 8, and he will not stay in a stall overnight. Why do horses do this? Don’t they feel comfortable in a stall? What is it in his behavior that causes him such anxiety? Could he get some vice from this?
Answer from April Reeves: I love this question, mainly because I have done years of testing and research on equine behavior and our intrusion into their lives. I wrote a comprehensive article on this which may help you to understand why horses behave the way they do. It will give you a better insight into the reasons for their actions and how they evolved.
Stalling horses will always be a necessity for many reasons, but to the horse, does this practice encourage comfort and safety, or anxiety and depression?
Listing the reasons why humans stall horses is not going to be covered in this article, as the reasons are fairly obvious to the human mind. What isn’t obvious to the human mind are the repercussions for this action.
Horses and Evolution
Lets look at how horses have evolved. It’s important to understand that the horse has lived on this earth for approximately 52-55 million years, while man has evolved for 16-17 million years (as Notharctus, a primate. Then after, Homo Sapiens, meaning wise or intelligent, evolved around 250,000 years ago).
When you think of how many years the horse has lived on this planet, their ability to adapt, survive and change can only create a mind or spirit that, because of longevity, is impermeable. Meaning that we, as humans, may not now, or ever, be able to alter specific characteristics deep within the horse that have existed throughout millions of years.
Horses are not cave dwellers. Humans are. Yet, we continue to subject our animals to the behaviors that are natural only to us.
Another thing to remember about humans is that we are currently moving along with a speed much unlike the past 15 million years, due to the fact that we have been given a level of intelligence beyond other creatures. While humans appear to be able to evolve at this speed, the rest of the world, as the natural world that includes the horse, is not.
In what ways can we change the horse? It is only because of human intervention that horses’ shapes and physical characteristics have altered dramatically over the past 100 years. Left up to the natural world, the horse today would look like the horse 100 years ago. Trends, styles and poor breeding have altered the horse within only a few generations, and not all of those alterations have been for the better. It is survival of the fittest in the natural world, and predators take out horses unable to keep up. In today’s world, breeding for the sake of breeding alone has created a market only for the dinner plate, while ignoring the fundamental motivation behind a horses’ physical evolution.
Humans tend to assume the horse has the ability to adapt to the many requirements we put on them, especially in the training arena. It is this area that humans come up against the horse’s natural instincts full force. How can we expect a horse to learn our ways in one day, when they have spent 55 million years doing it their way? Forcing change upon the horse to accept our way of learning will never happen in our lifetime (or perhaps the entire lifespan of humans). However, we tend to alter their environments without the same quick exchange of frustration and challenge from them. It is in this human capacity that we can assume some level of control over the horse, and assert our human dominance.
It’s important to understand what motivates a horse. To take in handling and training methods mechanically without prior theory will limit your ability to expand and grow with the horse. Those humans who are ‘born with a gift’ of understanding the horse have done so through years of watching, exploring, understanding, patience and simply being ‘aware’. Humans considered ‘gifted’ would tell you how much work it took to bring this ‘gift’ to light. Gifted without awareness is not a gift.
It is amazing that the horse allows humans to do the things they do. Perhaps it is the horses’ ability to adapt and change that permits this to happen. Unfortunately, our invasion into their lives for use as pets and not a food source has created a new challenge for the horse that is not just brand new but may be too fast for their evolutionary process.
In natural surroundings, the horse has the freedom to move, socialize, run from danger and exercise their uninhibited instincts. When pastured together, they are allowed to express most of their natural desires, with the exception of moving across miles of land, coming across other herds, and stallion challenges. Being able to move freely also has another benefit: horses that are injured in the wild must keep up with the herd or risk the entire herd to predators. Predatory groups are unlikely to single out herds that are healthy and difficult to run down. Therefore, over millions of years, this instinct has enabled the horse to heal through movement.
Humans’ first instinct with injured horses is to stall them, quite contradictory to the horses’ intuitive process. While this process does give the horse time to heal safely, a situation not available in the wild, we often tend to overlook the timing for release. Many horses with chronic injuries that live in constant confinement miss the chance of bouncing back when released to a herd and pasture.
Horses and Boredom
I am not convinced that horses get bored. I am convinced that only humans recognize boredom. Could the horse’s insistence to be constantly ‘doing something’ come from years of being on the move, and therefore having a series of rituals, born to every foal, that has to be carried out regardless of environments? Could our insistence that horses are bored, be us assuming the horse thinks like us? Like the stalled horse that has finished his feed (and is now looking for the next ‘natural’ thing to do), could his inborn rituals that he prefers to play out naturally, just be replaced by vices and habits?
It is also suggested that horses habits are caused by endorphins and enkephalins, triggered by the body’s response to stressful situations. It seems like an obvious point: the body chemistry changes in all living things when exposed to conditions it’s not familiar with. Again, in the wild or natural state, they will exercise their instincts. In confinement, they replace those instincts with abnormal behaviors.
When those natural instincts become restricted, horses tend to acquire habits that are self-defeating, dangerous and sometimes fatal.
While the stall, when used on a daily basis, may appear to be a place of comfort for the horse, often it ends up a place of restriction. Horses voluntarily go into stalls, but usually because stalls are where they find food and water. Once that requirement is filled, the horse will seek the next natural instinct, which could be either social behavior or movement of the herd. It is within this time that the negative patterns and habits are set up with the horse.
Habits of Destruction
You can take the horse out of the range, but you can’t take the range out of the horse.
The habits learned by the horse to combat an environment of restriction can damage both the physical and mental state of a horse. Many aversions created by horses under duress begin with the mental state first, and then affecting the physical.
It’s unlikely that wild horses ever cribbed (wind sucking). During the winter months, wild horses chew on bark and trees as a food source. If you put a few larger diameter pine branches into the corral during winter, horses will naturally chew them. Horses that crib however are ‘created’ by our lack of knowledge on feeding and care. Cribbing is not a vice or habit learned from another horse. It is developed by the affected horse to combat internal and stomach issues caused by discomfort from ulcers or acid reflux, which was caused by improper feeding. Cribbing can only be passed on if the ‘new acquisition’ also has internal disorders. Many cribbers spend countless hours with barn mates for years and no other horse has taken up the habit. What turns cribbing into a habit is the need for endorphin release the horse gets during the act of cribbing. Once started, cribbing will unlikely disappear entirely.
Weaving, Stall Walking & Kicking
These vices are from the inability to exercise the horses’ free rights to movement and social activity. They erode the physical structure in short order, damaging shoulder and leg joints and tendons. Much like carpal tunnel syndrome in humans, caused from excessive repetitive movement, weaving can cause undue stress on single joints, creating lifetime problems in movement and usability. Stall walking can create hip problems from the continual circular movement in one direction. Stall kicking can create capped hocks and tendon damage.
Horses often get into the habit of running their teeth on stall bars and other areas. The obvious affect this has is uneven tooth wear, which can lead to uneven food chewing, leading to internal problems.
Some people believe that these problems are a factor of genetics over human involvement. Perhaps this thought comes from the impression that certain bloodlines carry the predisposition, as opposed to the fact that many specific breeds are simply bred to create show horses that live in stalls from the beginning of life. If you were to track show breeds, you may find that the ones who didn’t make the ‘show cut’ and are in fields living ‘natural’ lives do not have any ‘predisposition’ to these habits. Also, if the mare had any habits, it’s likely the foal simply mimicked the mare, as being away from a natural herd environment will alter the foal’s ability and desire to select natural manners.
Breaking habits can only happen through changing the horse’s environment. Allowing the horse to come and go freely from a stall to a paddock will greatly reduce any vices and unwanted habits. Also, the interaction of the human and horse on a daily basis (that’s comforting and natural) will help to discourage negative problems.
While allowing a full view of the outside world from the stall may appear to calm the horse, this method only works with certain horses. Stimulation without the ability to participate may aggravate the situation and cause more stress. The use of toys can help, if the toy takes the place of the vice. Playing with toys in the stall is just another form of mental distraction caused from the underlying stress from the inability to express their natural instincts.
Stall Feeding versus Natural or Pasture Feeding
Often stress is caused from inadequate food supply, not just in the form of nutrition but in the horse’s natural way of foraging. Horses graze because they have to. Their physical bodies are built to take in food continually. Because they run from predators, it is unreasonable to ask a horse to run full speed on a stomach that’s completely full. Yet we do this to the horse continually, feeding stalled horses 3 to 4 times a day, and allowing the horse to sit overnight, sometimes for 8-hour stretches or longer, without feed. Every time the horse is unable to forage or have access to food, they become anxious, because they do not have the ability to understand that the food supply is always replenished. Only humans know and understand this, yet we again push our belief system onto the horse and have trouble understanding why the horse is so pushy during feeding the next morning. Also understand that another reason why the horse becomes aggressive during feeding is the simple act that you, the human, gave up your food to the horse, thereby creating a pattern of dominance from the horse that just ‘stole’ your food supply. Again, only we know that we gave the horse his feed; he thinks he took it from you.
Horses are also designed to keep food in their stomachs at all times. Their stomachs produce hydrochloric acid and pepsin to break down solid particles. Without food for several hours, the stomach begins to collect more acid and pepsins than is comfortable, and often results in discomfort, leading to cribbing and other vices. Bacteria are also present, which produces lactic acid. With horses left too long without forage, and then allowed to overeat a day or more later, the lactic acid forming bacteria ferment the food mass, producing more lactic acid. Stomachs can burst from bacterial fermentation of the food mass.
The Outside Stall
Walking a horse from a stall to a 20 by 20 foot paddock is not much different to the horse, except that he is free from the cave. Outside, he is allowed to visit and socialize within limits, smell the air and can play gelding games over the fence or cause the mares to squeal.
Testing I have done over the years
Except for the occasional walk-in stall, I stalled horses most of my life until the purchase of my first farm in the 70’s. I met a veterinarian who believed that stalling was unnatural and detrimental, and so was graining, as horses did not have vast supplies of grain in the wild (although stalling kept her in business; she commented that more horses injured themselves from being in stalls than not). I was intrigued by the advantages of pasture management, and set up the farm free of conventional stalls.
The results were astounding. I never encountered any of the problems I use to have with stalled horses. I rehabilitated ex-racehorses (Appendix Quarter Horses), and found that leaving them to pasture for 2 months changed their mental states completely. All the horses were easier and faster to train and re-train, were not prone to bucking or rearing of any kind, had no vices whatsoever, and were extremely easy to catch.
The horses were never without feed (minus grain). When the pasture disappeared in the winter, they were free fed. Not a single horse became fat. Every one had adjusted their weight to perfection; nice flesh over the ribs and just a little bloom, with muscle showing through.
I had purchased an exceptional Arabian broodmare, who had turned up lame in her second year of Park classes at the age of 5. When I bought her at 13 she was completely unrideable, with a bog spavin the size of a large walnut. After being out with the other horses for 3 weeks, she was able to run and buck, and was ridden almost daily for pleasure and exercise until her passing. The spavin decreased in size to about half. I then looked to purposely purchasing quality mares with an inherent lameness. Every one turned around and became serviceable.
During this ‘experimental farm’ phase I also took the horses to shows. Not one had bites or marks from being outside. They learned to get along or move out of the way. The aggressive ones chilled out and learned to be more lenient with their ‘lesser’ herd members.
I never shod a single horse. They all received trims monthly, but they all were taken on trail rides and pack trips, especially the show string.
None of them blew up in the show ring, or created any form of misbehavior. Other horses could bump them and run into them, without a single flinch. They were accustomed to having other horses invade their space.
Anyone who uses their senses can see that horses left in stalls and fed irregularly carry high levels of stress, depression and anxiety. While humans may look at the outside and admire the shiny coats and polished appearance, inside the horse is screaming to be freed.
To learn how to ‘read’ the signs of depression in a horse, spend time in a pasture setting watching how horses in a natural environment relate. Sit back for at least one hour and observe the way they interact with each other, and do this regularly. It’s difficult to recognize black if you’ve never seen white. Rent a video about wild herds. Above all, pay attention. Be aware. Use your instincts to tell you when something isn’t quite right, instead of your head telling you the horse is just being stupid.
The Case for Stalls
Stalling has its place, and this article is in no way a demand to end the stall. Fortunately, our world is changing, and with the bad comes an equal level of good. Humans are becoming more aware of their horses and the way in which we interact with them. This can only lead to positive results for both parties.
In the case for stalls, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish many of the things we do with horses without them. Stalls are necessary for any horse in the show arena. Horses brought in from a pasture environment to a stall may undergo levels of stress from being separated from the herd and having their movement and instincts restricted. It is necessary to bring the horse into the stall days, even months prior before exposing it to a show overnight.
Stalls allow us to confine sick and injured horses, giving them a head start on healing that a wild herd on the move may not accommodate.
Many top breeders stall their horses in the day, releasing them to large fields overnight. This gives the horses a chance to express their natural ways and gives the human the chance to collect and train them easier by day. By not turning horses out in the daytime sun, their coats maintain the sheen levels for the show ring. Yet many barns and facilities still do the opposite, believing that the dark is not safe, even though horses eyesight has evolved to accommodate this. The horses get the chance to move and graze for around 10 hours throughout the night (as opposed to 10 hours of overnight confinement without forage). In the daytime they are in the barn and ridden and fussed with, making the time more interesting and useful.
The Future – Friend or Foe?
Who will be here a million years from now? Is our interaction with the horse going to be their determining factor for survival? Has 55 million years of natural evolution come to an end for them? The speed of mankind has influenced every living organism on this planet. While climate change and global warming may be a natural cycle, man has put the entire process on fast-forward. Unfortunately, the rest of the living species is not capable of keeping up.
Horses pay a high price for our vanity and ego. While many of them adapt and tolerate stall life over the years, there are horses than never seem to settle into the human way of life. Perhaps 55 million years has left an indelible mark on the horse we humans will never erase.
Let’s hope so.