Written by: Teresa Pitman

Horse owners and experts discuss the pros and cons of indoor vs outdoor boarding.

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Pam Mackenzie photo

Although research suggests that living outdoors is ideal for the health and well-being of horses, 24/7 turnout is not always an option, nor is it preferable to some horse owners. Here, we consult veterinarians and speak with horse owners about how to create a healthy environment for horses, whether indoors or out.

Outdoor Boarding

Veterinarian Hugh Semple of Vegreville, Alberta, remembers an experience from some 30 years ago when he was a student at the University of Saskatchewan’s veterinary college. A number of people had begun boarding their horses in the heated racetrack barns not far from the university, where the horses were exercised in the adjacent indoor arena. Nearby, there were facilities where the horses were kept outdoors, given windbreak shelters and plenty of hay and grain supplements. During the winter, the students and faculty noticed something a bit surprising. “We were receiving a lot of calls from the racetrack facility and very few from the farm where the horses were kept outdoors,” said Semple. The horses housed in the heated barns were less healthy than those kept outside.

That observation seems counter-intuitive to many of us. We’d rather be living in cosy, heated houses (especially if we live in Saskatchewan in the winter!) so it seems logical that it would be good for our horses too. Research has shown, however, that horses kept indoors are at greater risk of respiratory illness, digestive problems, infectious diseases and behavioural problems. And Sid Gustafson, an equine veterinarian in Montana, says stalls are not only risky for a horse’s physical health, but for his mental health as well.

“Horses kept indoors are deprived of friends, forage and locomotion – three elements that are vital to their health and happiness,” said Gustafson. “Many of the “stable vices’ we see, such as cribbing and weaving, are a direct result of this deprivation.”

Sandra Henry of St. George, Ontario, has seen the benefits of outdoor board with her mare, Cameo, a Thoroughbred/Clydesdale cross.

“We kept her in a stall for the first two years we had her,” she said, “although she was turned out for the morning and the early part of the afternoon. But she’d kick and kick in the stall.” Henry also found Cameo challenging to work with. “She’d dance around in the cross-ties and would spook at everything,” she said.

When Henry moved Cameo to another boarding stable where she was able to be outdoors all the time, and just brought in to be fed or for very cold nights, she saw a significant improvement.

“She loves to roll and gallop in the fields with her friends – they are always on the move,”she said. “She just loves being outside.”

Cameo’s happiness in the field has translated into a better riding experience. Henry said that Cameo comes when she’s called, is much calmer while being groomed and saddled and seems to enjoy being ridden now.

Why is outdoor life so important for equines? Horses evolved, Gustafson explained, to eat for about two-thirds of the day. When fed infrequently, they are prone to ulcers, colic and other digestive problems. They are also very social animals who need to interact with other horses. As well, they are designed to be on the move most of the time, so being forced to stand still in a stall is stressful.

“The more the horse’s needs and preferences are fulfilled, the better the horse will feel and the better he will perform,” added Gustafson. “There are positive benefits for both the horse and the owner.”

Doug Nash of Cambridge, ON, saw the value of outdoor board during his long career with Glengate Farms where he oversaw the Standardbred breeding operation.

“I’ve attended about 3,500 foalings,” he said. “They call me the horse midwife.” Nash is retired now, but continues to share his expertise at conferences.

“We had an average of 120 to 150 mares and foals each season,” he said, “and all the horses, from the pregnant mares to the weanlings and yearlings were kept outdoors with run-in sheds.”

Because the mares were foaling early in the year, he moved them to the foaling barn as they approached their due dates, where they spent nights in their stalls, but were outside during the day.

“That was only because our mares were foaling in such cold weather – for people who have foals born later in the year or in warmer climates, there’s no problem with foaling outdoors.”

Nash cautioned, “It’s important, however, that the mare be in that paddock or environment for at least a couple of months, so that she develops antibodies to the environment and can pass them along to the foal.”

Nash believes that the exercise his mares got while outdoors with other horses helped them stay fit and healthy while giving birth.

“You just can’t get too much sunshine, fresh air and exercise,” he added. Having a good-quality shelter available is essential to making outdoor board arrangements work, said Nash. His ideal shelter is:

  • Built as a three-sided shed, 20 feet deep, with 12 feet of width per horse. The roof should be 10 feet high in front so that a farm vehicle can be driven into the shelter if needed.
  • Facing south for maximum sunlight, with transparent panels in the roof to let more sun in.
  • Including a couple of stalls so that horses who are injured or otherwise need to be confined temporarily can still be close to their buddies. These stalls can also provide a way to feed supplements to individual horses when needed.
  • Built with space for hay storage to make feeding easier. Nash also built standing stalls into the shelters where hay could be put out for each horse to eat. This set-up reduced fighting and enabled even the more timid horses to get their share.
  •  Designed to include lights that come on at night so that the horses can see what’s around them.

Nash’s experience has convinced him that companionship is essential to a horse’s mental health.

“They are herd animals, and they feel safest in a group. A horse who is alone can feel panicky; in a group they are calmer and easier to work with.”

Another fan of outdoor living for horses is Rita Seright of Calgary, AB, who has a 23-year-old Thoroughbred mare she calls Belle, who she bought right off the track and showed in dressage and jumping when she was younger. (Belle’s retired from the show ring now.) She’s always been an outdoor horse.

“Horses off the track tend to be very high-energy and it’s hard to keep them exercised enough,” said Seright. “But if they’re outdoors and can move around as much as they want, they are mentally much better. It’s a more natural way for horses to live.”

“In Alberta, the wind chill can get very cold. Belle’s out with five other horses and they have a large shelter, but I know she can lose a lot of calories if she’s too cold, so I blanket her and sometimes use double blankets.”

Nash, on the other hand, never put blankets on his horses.

“When blankets are wet, they conduct the cold right through,” he pointed out. “And they get filthy in no time.”

Veterinarian Bri Henderson says that horses are “temperature neutral” to -10C. “That means they do not burn any extra calories to stay warm until it gets below -10C,” she explained. She added, however, that horses are extremely sensitive to wind chill, so she recommends that once the weather is well below freezing, a horse kept outdoors should be blanketed. Blankets can be especially important for underweight horses, older horses and horses with thinner skin (such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds).

Prefer not to use blankets? If your horse doesn’t fit into one of the categories Henderson listed, she said that your unblanketed outdoor horses will require a sturdy shelter to protect them from the winds, increased caloric intake for the winter months, and plenty of warm water.

Blanketing requires, Henderson added, “being a little bit psychic. If you leave at 7:00 a.m. for work and the weather report says the temperature is going to climb to 8C, it would be wise to take the blanket off before you go so your horse doesn’t overheat.When you get home at night, you can groom your horse and put the blanket back on.”

If a horse is blanketed most of the time in winter, Henderson recommends removing the blanket once a day (or at least three times each week) to thoroughly groom the horse and check for any areas that are being rubbed.

Kelly Mulholland of Arthur, ON, doesn’t blanket her two geldings who live outdoors with access to shelter except in very cold weather. “We have two two-acre paddocks that we rotate, one with access to a large stall in an insulated steel barn and the other with a wooden shelter,” she said. They use the other paddock as a riding arena and keep the manure picked up as well.

“There are no downsides, as long as you have good shelter, access to water and good fences,” said Mulholland. “It’s the most natural and healthy lifestyle for the horses – and for us!”

Gustafson agrees, saying, “For horses, comfort and security come from friendship, foraging and near-constant casual locomotion.” When these are present, the horse feels better mentally and physically and is better able to work with his owner or trainer. It’s definitely a win-win situation.

Indoor Boarding

It’s clear that keeping a horse in a stall some or most of the time is more convenient for horse owners. There’s no trekking out to the pasture to bring your (probably mud-covered) horse into the barn when you want to ride, fewer worries about bites and kicks from other horses and less space required for horsekeeping. But is it good for the horse?

Sherri Paiement of Kelowna, B.C., says she thinks the answer to that question depends on the horse. She keeps her 17.3hh Thoroughbred gelding at a stable where he’s in a stall until after breakfast, then out in a paddock until late afternoon (3:30 p.m. in winter, 4:30 p.m. in summer), then back in his stall for the evening and overnight. She likes knowing that he’s dry and warm through the winter nights.

“He’s quite happy with this since he loves his space,” Paiement said. “The routine is also a must for him since he doesn’t deal well without it.”

She added that she also likes that fact that he’s handled twice a day by the stable owners, who can monitor him for any injuries and keep an eye on his weight, which Paiement said tends to fluctuate without careful attention.

“Given his competition schedule and his physical activity, outdoor board would not work for him,” she said.

Jackie Clarke of Dundalk, ON, says her American Paint Horse mare, Dreamer, was previously stabled indoors for about 15 hours each day and in a paddock during the remaining hours of the day with one or two other horses.

“Dreamer always appeared relaxed in her stall and loved to stretch out on the ground to take a nap,” she said.

Veterinarian Kathleen Cavanagh of Ridgeville, ON, who teaches equine health and disease prevention and nutrition at the University of Guelph, says there are other possible benefits to indoor board, though in her courses she advises that 24/7 turnout with shelter is the ideal.

“It’s easier to monitor a horse’s food intake in a stall, so if your horse is being fed a customized diet, you can make sure he’s getting it and can tell if he’s not eating as he should,” she said. “Horses who are in elite competition may have high-energy needs and some require close watching.”

For a horse who has previously foundered, having the horse on pasture all day may be risky (although some horse owners wanting to keep their animals outdoors have managed this by putting a grazing muzzle on the horse for part of the day, or by turning out in a dry lot).

“With a show horse, you may be concerned about cuts and marks from being outdoors,” Cavanagh added. “And some horses do seem like an accident waiting to happen – they’ll find the only pothole in a 20-acre field and fall right into it. So, with a competitive show horse, you might want to minimize the risk of injury by keeping an accident-prone horse in a stall.”

While those stalls look nice and cosy from a person’s perspective, research suggests there may be significant risks to a horse’s health when he is kept largely indoors.

Laurent Viel, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, says that research has shown horses who are kept in stalls all the time, except when taken to the riding arena or racetrack, can be exposed to critical levels of dust and mould in the air.

“During mucking out and feeding times, these levels increase at least 1,000 times,” Viel said.

When her horse Dreamer was kept indoors, Clarke noticed that many of the horses in the stable had behavioural issues and health problems.

“Dreamer had a respiratory issue one winter, which was quite stubborn to clear up – she had an ongoing cough and required medication for two months.”

She’s now moved Dreamer, as well as her new horse, Classy, to her own farm, where the horses are outdoors full-time with a run-in shelter.

“Since moving Dreamer to her current location, I have not had a single issue with her health.”

If your situation means that indoor stabling is the right choice for your horse, you will want to do what you can to make it physically and mentally healthier for your horse. Cavanagh suggests a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the risks:

  • Good ventilation can help reduce the respiratory problems associated with the constant exposure to dust and ammonia gas (from urine) that horses get when kept indoors. Increasing the air flow in both summer and winter can reduce this problem, even if it means the barn is a little chilly on cold days. The horses should also be out of the barn while it is being cleaned, because that’s when the dust and ammonia levels are highest, Cavanagh said. Viel also suggests having all horses out of the barn during feeding times and waiting until the dust settles before bringing them back in.
  • More frequent feedings reduce the risk of ulcers, poor digestion and colic. ‘Horses are meant to be eating little bits all the time, probably every hour,’ said Cavanagh. ‘It’s not good for their stomachs to be empty.’ She recommends feeding hay at least five times a day and never going more than eight hours without providing food. ‘If the last feeding of the day is at 10:00 p.m., the horses should be fed again at 6:00 a.m.’
  • Have shallow bedding in the stalls rather than deep bedding, because the deep bedding allows more ammonia build-up. Rubber mats used in stalls should be scrubbed regularly.
  • Provide safe toys in the stall for the horse to play with and try to arrange stalls so each horse can have contact with his neighbours. ‘It helps if they can stick their heads out and touch each other,’ said Cavanagh. Horses are social animals and being able to have contact with other horses increases their sense of security and enables them to feel more relaxed.
  • If your horse has not developed a good winter coat (coat growth depends on the amount of light horses are exposed to and can be artificially manipulated), be sure to blanket him during the time he is outside. But don’t let the hassle of putting blankets on and off reduce his time in paddock or pasture. ‘The more time outdoors, the better,’ said Cavanagh.
  • Plan to give the horse extra grooming to help replace the physical contact he would otherwise get from being with his buddies in a field.
  • Make a plan to deal with situations where a horse is sick. “In an enclosed barn, infectious disease can be quickly transmitted to the other horses,” Cavanagh said. “You want to have a pasture or separate barn where a new horse or a horse who is ill can be isolated from the others.”

While most experts encourage outdoor board for horses, they are also practical. Clearly, there are many factors involved in determining how well indoor board will work for a particular horse and horse owner.

“It is sometimes necessary to keep our horses indoors, and while there are challenges to that kind of living arrangement there are definitely things we can do to make it better for the horse,” said Cavanagh.