Equine Psychology & Behaviour, Horses

Prisoner Cell Block H-orse

Equine Empathy Prisoner Cell Block H-orse

It can be easy to put human needs, human emotions and convenience before the needs of a horse, especially when it comes to stabling.

We hear it so often when a horse owner says “I love my horse” but if that is really true, why are horses treated like prisoners for most of their lives? We’d like to put every horse owner in a stable, lock them in with one meal and a bucket of water from 16:00 hours to 08:00 the next morning and then see how they feel about being in that is effectively a cell.If you have ever had ‘cabin fever’ or felt like climbing the walls after being confined to bed or house through illness or injury, just what do you think your horses feels about being locked up, when all he wants is to have the option run away to feel safe?

Part of the horses’s evolutionary success is that fact that it has adapted to eating the poorest-quality forage, containing the lowest concentrate of protein of any large herbivore:  it thrives on grasses that a cow would starve on.  And unlike many large grazing animals, horses can eat and run by digesting normally indigestible cellulose of stems and leaves in the ‘cecum’ (unlike ‘ruminants’ such as sheep & cattle that have to rest for hours after eating; horses, tapirs and rhinos can eat and run!).  Yet humans interfere by restricting grass or hay intake which leaves gallons of gastric acid with nothing to digest (see below) and restricting movement by incarcerating the horse into a 12 x 12, often dark,  box!

The other benefit of turnout is that horses are constantly moving to search for fresh forage or to find companionship or

Although it may not be feasible in terms of pasture/acreage, or illness (box rest) to turn a horse out 27/7 owners need to think more creatively about making the environment as natural as possible for the horse.

Mental & physical implications of box confinement

Chronic frustration from isolation, lack of social contact (segregation form the herd), lack of environmental enrichment and/or lack of stimulation can result in abnormal or stereotypic behaviours (‘stereotypies’).  Abnormal behaviours include pacing, licking, eating or chewing of non-food objects. Stereotypies are repetitive behaviours horses use to cope with the abundance of time that would otherwise be spent grazing and socializing.  Examples of these include crib biting, weaving, wind sucking, head tossing and head nodding.

Stress Related Equine Ulcers

Did you know horses produce up to 16 gallons of acidic gastric juice each day?  That’s approximately equivalent to:
The gas tank of an average car or
Three five-gallon water buckets or
Half of an average bathtub!

Horses evolved to graze, eating many small meals frequently. This way, the stomach is rarely empty and the stomach acid has less of a damaging effect. The horse’s digestive tract is well designed for continuous or “trickle” delivery of pasture forage. If horses and foals do not eat frequently, the acid builds up and ulcers are more likely to develop. Ulcers are a common medical condition in horses and foals. It is estimated that almost 50% of foals and 1/3 of adult horses confined in stables/stalls may have mild ulcers. Up to 60% of show horses and 90% of racehorses may develop moderate to severe ulcers.

On average, horses graze approximately 70% of the time spent at pasture. So, if a horse has 24-hour access to pasture, he’ll spend up to 17 hours grazing/grazing-related activity.

Who needs a horse walker…?  Horses spend about 10% of their time walking when at pasture. However, more time will be spent walking on poorer quality pasture as the horse searches for palatable forage.  Therefore turnout provides a great place for horses to exercise, and this exercise also can be important in maintaining healthy gastrointestinal function.  In a Japanese study, horses at pasture for 17 hours per day traveled between eight and 9.5 miles, whereas horses restricted to seven hours grazing per day covered 2.5 to three miles.  Most of this distance will be covered at the walk. Even so, energy expenditure per day (calories burned) will be considerably higher for a horse given access to pasture when compared to a horse kept in a stall for much of the day. This voluntary exercise also has a conditioning effect. In a recent study, there was a 20-25% increase in the aerobic capacity (VO2max) of young Thoroughbreds which were otherwise untrained but turned out to pasture for between seven and 20 hours per day.  Which is why it is counter-intuitive to stable competition horses!

Keep it natural

Hoyt Cheramie, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS reports, “The most natural way to feed a horse is to provide grazing for most of the day.  However, that isn’t feasible for most performance horses that are fed large infrequent meals, have limited turnout and grazing, and are under the stress of training, showing, and traveling; yet their stomachs still produce all of that gastric fluid on relatively empty stomachs.”

The most natural way to decrease the strength of the acidic juice in the stomach and to keep it off the upper squamous lining (the unlined part of the stomach) is to take advantage of a quality-roughage-based diet.

  • Increasing grazing time whenever possible;
  • Using a slow-feed or grazing haynet to extend foraging time;
  • Replacing calories from cereal grains with good-quality roughage; and
  • Adding alfalfa to the diet, where appropriate.

A higher-roughage diet has been shown to result in a lower acid level due to roughage and saliva’s natural buffering effect.


Asai. Y.; Matsui, A.; Kawai, M.; et al. Digestible energy expenditure in grazing activity of growing horses. Equine Veterinary Journal,Supplement 30, 490-492, 1999.

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