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  • Writer's pictureClay Nelson

Horse barn design that allows a horse to be a horse: Benefits of group housing

Updated: Jun 14

When considering the planning, layout and design of your horse barn, a wide spectrum of stabling options exists, from traditional box stalls and individualized turnout to group housing of horses in centralized shelters like run-in sheds. Deciding where the horses in your barn will live and how they will interact is a major component of a well-designed horse property. Thought must be given to horse and human safety, chore efficiency, budget, and the lifestyle you want for your horses. Because as much as you might feel like you live at the barn, your horses actually do.

 

Horse barns designed for group housing have many benefits, including better temperament and trainability, reduced stress, fewer stereotypic behaviors, better circulation and improved gut health in your horses!

Studies carried out by university research programs during the last twenty years document the importance of herd-based socialization to the healthy development and long-term well-being of horses. 

 

In this article, we discuss the mental and physical health benefits of housing horses primarily in groups, rather than in solitary box stalls. In addition, we examine how these horse benefits translate to human benefits under saddle and around the farm. 



Better horse barn design can be informed by:

 

How horses naturally socialize


Feral horses live in herds typically ranging in size from 2-21 horses (1). Social interaction within the herd is natural and key to overall horse well-being and an innate sense of safety and security for the horse. Social roles and interactions include:

 

  • Mutual grooming

  • Head-to-tail positioning for insect control

  • Play

  • Resource sharing or protection

  • Leading the herd in search of food and water

  • Predator identification and avoidance behavior

 

How horses learn and communicate


Mindfully designed herd-style housing in barns allows domestic horses to practice socialization behaviors that are critical to both their cognitive and emotional well-being. They learn quickly to respect other herd members, along with the skills necessary to communicate and form bonds with herd mates. 

 

The communication skills required to “make friends” among herd mates is equally important to the human-horse relationship during training, when horses are asked to trust their human handlers, and to respond correctly to the myriad of verbal and non-verbal cues we use when interacting with our horse partners. A 2002 study conducted at Michigan State University examined the relationship between stabling techniques and trainability (2).  They found that stalled horses took 25% longer to complete training compared to horses who were turned out together.

 

Understanding horses' emotional well-being


Group housing of horses also provides important emotional health benefits for domestic horses - including perception of personal safety and response to physical stimuli. 

 

Horses living together share the responsibility of watching for danger. This is evident by watching horses together. When one horse lays down to sleep, another stands nearby on watch. In a group of horses moving, the lead horse travels on alert with head high and ears forward. Following horses often travel with ears back and heads in a neutral position. The horse who lives apart is wholly responsible for his own safety, which is an unnatural emotional burden for horses that can lead to nervous behaviors such as stall-weaving, paddock pacing, and hyper-reactivity to perceived threats both under saddle and in-hand (3).

 

Establishing a “safety in numbers” feeling though herd-style stabling also allows individual horses to experience physical stimuli in a non-threatening way. For example, a horse alone may refuse to cross water, but if the herd wades into a stream to drink, that same horse will perceive it is safe and lose his fear of it. Likewise if the herd does not spook at a tractor driving past, the individual horse will soon learn to dismiss the sound of machinery as routine.

 

Supporting horses' physical health through barn design


In the practice of normal social behaviors like driving, following, play and mutual grooming, horses living in groups move significantly more than horses kept solitary. Anyone who has ridden fireworks performed by a recently stalled horse can attest to the importance of regular movement for liberating pent up energy.

 

Of greater significance, however are the physiological benefits of movement for horses. Horse hooves are uniquely designed to help pump blood through the body when the hoof capsule is compressed and uncompressed by regular movement (4).  Improved circulation enriches joints and ligaments with nutrients and stimulates hoof growth. Also, persistent movement throughout the day mobilizes the gut, aiding digestion and mitigating the risk of gastrointestinal issues like colic and ulcer formation (5).  In a future post we plan to explore in more detail the benefits of regular movement for overall horse health.

 

Increased movement due to group housing of horses may, therefore, lead to better long-term health, possibly reducing veterinary and farrier-related intervention, while improving soundness and performance under saddle.


This video, from a past client Bright Side Youth Ranch in York, SC, showcases our focus on overall facility design that allows horses to interact as a herd. Note the horse walking along the laneway, returning from a grazing bout to join the rest of the herd feeding in the dry lot attached to the barn. Property layouts like this allow horses to move freely and regularly.

 

Summary


Horses are herd animals designed by nature to survive through socialization and regular movement. Group housing of horses involves stabling them in a way that preserves the “herd condition”, including enabling movement and maximizing access to the outdoors and uninterrupted physical interaction with other horses. Horses living in groups practice communication skills and exercise the sensory response and cognitive functions of their brain, all of which translates to improved trainability in hand. Increasing your horse’s “daily steps” through herd-style living can trigger better circulation and joint health, stimulate hoof growth and promote gastrointestinal well-being.

 

The human convenience of stalling horses is undeniable, but the physical and mental well-being cost of isolating our horses from each other is high. To learn more about how to combine the benefits of group housing with the convenience and efficiency of traditional stable layouts, check out our recent post titled “Building a Better Horse Barn”.

 

Contributor Bio


A huge thank you to Liselle Batt, PhD, who contributed to the writing of this blog post. Liselle is an AAPF accredited farrier providing balanced trimming and shoeing services that include conventional nail-on horseshoes, glue-on composite shoes and hoof boot fitting for both recreational riding and therapeutic recovery. Liselle owns Butterfield Farm, an off-grid horse farm in western Maine that offers rehabilitative board for horses suffering from pathologies like laminitis and white line disease.


 

References

 

1. Dobie, Frank.  The Mustangs.  Austin, University of Texas, 1934.

 

2. Rivera, E., Benjamin, S., Nielsen, B., Shelle, J., Zanella, A.J., Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to initial training: the comparison between pastured versus stalled horses, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2002.

 

3. Sarrafchia, A., Blokhuisb, H.J., Equine stereotypic behaviors: Causation, occurrence, and prevention. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2013.

 

4. Floyd, Andrea and Mansmann, R.A., Equine Podiatry. St. Louis, Saunders Elsevier, 2007.

 

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