"Horses are herd animals designed by nature to be moving 18 to 22 hours a day. The other 2 to 6 hours are spent napping or down and out sleeping. Many of their body systems are dependent upon them having maximum freedom of movement. As prey animals, they are dependent on their ability to run for safety and are only truly comfortable when they know they can get out of Dodge if they need to (and quickly). That doesn’t mean they won’t become institutionalized if we force them to, but it will affect them on a very deep level.
Their guts are designed to have something in them 18 to 22 hours a day – not necessarily a lot of food but a continuous uptake of a variety of forage. Studies done by an equine nutritionist in Germany on stalled performance horses found they were healthiest if they had continuous access to good quality hay and were given their grain ration in small amounts ten times a day.
A healthy hoof (unshod) expands and contracts with every step the horse takes, pumping blood not just through the hoof but back up the leg and through the horse’s entire body. Dr. Robert Bowker VMD PHd, of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University, did a study where he compared the number of steps stalled horses take in a specific period of time with those of a group of four horses in a 2-acre paddock. The horses in the paddock took between 4,000 and 6,000 steps while the stalled horses took only 800. Reduced circulation is going to affect every system in the horse’s body.
Studies have been done on thoroughbreds that show how movement and/or impact effects the strength of bones, tendons, ligaments and other tissues. These studies were not conducted by us crazy “natural” people but by people in horse industries. I think you can make a credible argument that this might be related to the circulation issue.
Horses are pretty touchy-feely with each other. They have a very active social structure and enjoy grooming and touching each other. When closed in a stall, they are separated from their herd members. If they want to see them, they have to keep their heads in an unnaturally high posture for long periods of time. That in itself will result in musculo-skeletal issues. If you have them bedded in shavings, they are breathing the dust with no way to get away from it (respiratory problems result). And then there is the boredom. They don’t call them “stall vices” for nothing.
As far as relaxing in their own room goes, that IMO is true anthropomorphism. Closing a horse in a stall is the equivalent of locking you in your closet with no bathroom. But don’t worry, someone will come in and clean the feces and urine out eventually. Meanwhile, you get to smell it and breathe the ammonia fumes. You want to lie down? No problem, just be sure you poop way up in a corner so you don’t have to lie in it.
All over the world, people are finding out that the less they interfere with what nature intended for their companion animals, the healthier and happier the animals are. Even zoos are finding that in order to have healthy animals and successful breeding programs they have to provide as natural an environment as possible. This is not just housing but nutrition and occupation also. I read where one of the zoos found it had less behavioral issues with its primates if they put the bananas in trees for the monkeys to find them rather than just hand them to them.
When I had Whinney (my Curly mare) at the first boarding barn, she was the only horse on pasture board. All the others went in at night. She would hang out at the gate and mope. I interpreted that to mean she wanted to have a stall, and went on stall board as soon as I could afford it. Fortunately, her stall had a big turnout run off it, so she didn’t suffer too much from my ignorance. I now know it was not the stall she wanted but the company of her herd mates. So, not just maximum turnout for those horses but also the company of at least one other equine. Two horses will move more in a one-acre paddock than a single horse will in a 10-acre paddock.
It has been my observation that most people who keep their horses in stalls do so for their own convenience, not because it is what is best for the horses."
Anne W. Daimler, Holistic Hoofcare Professional and free-living Curly owner