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Horse Behaviour: Stables are Cages

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Horse Behaviour – Article: 3

Stables are Cages

Overview of the article:

Provides a new take on how fair it is to keep horses in stables with suggested solutions based on the science of Applied Animal Behaviour and the NAC Barn System. This is a brief article – for a fuller understanding of the topic we suggest the Equine Behaviour Qualification Course. See the end of the article for the link to the prospectus.


Many domestic horses routinely suppress their natural Horse Behaviour / herd instincts as they struggle to adapt to living in the way we humans dictate. Some cope remarkably well, but others show their stress in abnormal Horse Behaviour such as weaving or crib biting. At the Natural Animal Centre, we have set up a system for our herd of rescue horses that makes their lives as natural as possible thereby removing much of this stress. It is all based on the science of Equine Behaviour.


Adapt or die?

The horse evolved from a forest dwelling fox-sized animal called Eohippus who lived 65 million years ago. According to archaeological findings, we have evidence that early human contact occurred a mere 15 000 years ago when horses were being kept exclusively as a food supply – 15 000 years is a blink of an eye compared to their evolutionary past, in percentage terms we have been around horses for 0.0002% of their evolution!

Although we know that horses were first ridden with bits about 6 000 years ago, it wasn’t until after the First World War that we start to see them being kept across the world for mainly recreation. Keeping them for pleasure only, can often leave horses with no function or focus in their lives. All of this has happened less than 100 years ago – an incredibly fast process for an animal that has been around so long.

Making your horse’s life as natural as possible (applying the scientific concepts of Horse Behaviour) will remove much of this stress.

Stables are cages

Most of us, if we stopped to think about it, would acknowledge that if a horse was given a choice, he probably would rather be out in the field with his friends, than spending a large percentage of his day in a stable. The fortunate horses in this country are turned out at 8 in the morning and are back in their stables by about 3 pm – that leaves 17 hours every day in a box they can just turn around in.

And those are the lucky ones! In winter or many competition yards, horses get little or no turn out at all and this fundamentally at odds with natural Horse Behaviour.

In a well-publicised series of articles in a national equestrian magazine, we asked readers to try the following:

 For just one week, change the word “stable” to “cage”.

 So instead of saying, “I’m about to pop my horse back in his stable” try this for size :


“I’m going to pop my horse back in his/her cage”

 Or, “My horse has cozy cage with a nice clean bed” instead of “My horse has a

nice cozy stable and a clean bed”.


Realizing that “stable” is really just a euphemism for “cage” is an important concept in understanding the stress of the modern horse. In studies performed at the Natural Animal Centre, we have proved that the average horse in the average stable has around TWENTY TIMES LESS SPACE than an AVERAGE HAMSTER in his two-tiered cage.

Keeping horses in stables is an arrangement that is convenient for us but certainly does not comply with natural Equine Behaviour – we allocate time on the Equine Behaviour Course to studying natural Horse Behaviour because if you do not know what is natural Horse Behaviour it is not possible to identify abnormal Horse Behaviour. But many people have limited time to spend with their horse squeezing recreational time between the demands of family and career and it is simply easier to keep a horse stabled rather than spending that precious time catching him in a field and then grooming him.

If you truly care about the natural behavioural needs of your horse, then you may need to find a compromise between your horse’s behavioural needs and your requirements. If a cow can learn to go to a particular stall to be milked – why can’t we use similar principles in the way we manage horses?

At the Natural Animal Centre we run the NAC Barn System ® method of keeping our horses – a compromise for both horse and human. In the summer months the horses enjoy 24 hours/day turnout but in the winter, they are brought in at night into a large open barn. This system allows them to stay with their herd permanently. It also allows a horse to fulfil his spatial needs in a way which no stabling arrangement could ever do. Apart from calmer, stress-free horses, the barn system has other benefits for humans. The horses tend to maximize their space by staling and dunging in one area treating it like a rank area in a field. This means less mucking out time for your. The barn system is also a considerably cheaper system too.

Horses are designed to eat for 15 or 16 hours per day and allowing them to be turned out all day obviously fulfils this important need. You may think that offering stabled horses ad lib hay solves the problem – but there is one big difference. Horses kept in an open barn system at night are able to move around whilst eating. Allowing horses to eat on the move, just as if they were grazing, greatly reduces stress levels and keeps the herd mood harmonious.  (On the Equine Behaviour Course this is covered under the discussions on the horses’ ethogram – the list of natural behaviours.  Eating and walking are completely linked in the ethogram.)

During the winter at the Natural Animal Centre, horses in the herd are all on different amounts and types of food but they have all been trained to find their own bowl and then remain there until they have finished eating. After that, whilst others may still be busy feeding, the horse has two options: either leave the barn or eat the hay placed next to his bowl without disturbing his neighbours. This was initially practiced in an open field but took surprisingly little time to achieve. In a matter of days, the horses all knew what we were asking them to do.

Once all the horses have finished their feed, the bowls are removed and the animals are free to move around and graze on the numerous heaps of hay. Many of the herd choose to graze alongside their pair bond – just as they would in an open field. Water is provided in a large cattle trough as well as two more smaller troughs and if all the horses are thirsty, then they drink from the troughs in order of social status.


Making the change to natural

The first step towards helping a horse is to learn as much as possible about his natural lifestyle (the science of Horse Behaviour) and then try to get as close as you possibly can to this ideal model. Horses naturally prefer to live in herds. As herbivores, they are fairly low down the food chain and so are always on the lookout for predators. It makes sense to live as a group because there are more pairs of eyes watching for danger and as long as individuals are not sick, lame or vulnerable, there is a good chance they won’t be selected as targets. Living in a herd also makes it easier to find a partner to reproduce with and also more opportunities for social interaction like play.

When living in a herd or turned out in a small social group (which is a good approximation of natural Horse Behaviour), each horse will form a bond with another horse. These are known as pair bonds and, without human interference, will last for life. Horses mutually select each other and try to find a partner as similar to them as possible in terms of age, sex and size. Pair bonding has a biological function in that each horse has a special companion to watch over him and to play with.


Understanding zebras is the key to applying Horse Behaviour

Why has it been possible that man has been able to easily domesticate horses and ride them – whereas he has not been able to do the same with zebras or some other species of antelope? It is the horse’s inborn desire to find and be with a pair bond which helps horses accept us and allows us to share a close relationship with our own horses, indeed allows us, even as potential predators, to ride on their backs.

If your horse is already turned out with the same group, it is more than likely that he has a pair bond. To find out who that might be, look for the following Horse Behaviour:

  • pair bonded horses will graze and drink in close together and alert each other to danger
  • there is often a distance between different pairs grazing together in a field
  • mutual grooming is a favourite activity – although your horse may groom other horses as well, he will groom his pair bond most often.  Stabled horses or those whose field companions are regularly changed are not able to pair bond. This can make them listless, restless, aggressive, nappy or induce stable vices.

The natural solution based on Applied Equine Behaviour is:

  • never keep your horse on his own
  • turn your horse out regularly
  • as far as possible, keep the horse’s social group stable – this means keeping the same horses together and avoid many individuals joining or leaving the group.

The Unnatural Way

Can you imagine how you might feel if you were confined physically and were unable to change the situation? You were locked in? You might feel a sense of panic initially but if the confinement went on for many weeks or months, you would probably reach a level of acceptance, albeit an unhappy one. But not all people reach that level of acceptance and recent scientific research into prison inmates showed that in long term confinement like a prison, some people became aggressive, even violent toward others, obsessed with self mutilation and acted out certain behaviours such as rocking back and forth for hours on end.  (On the Equine Behaviour Course we cover the effects of compromising a horse’s natural behavioural needs in depth – and of course solutions for you as an Animal Behaviourist to implement.)

Other Equine Behaviour research on thousands of stabled horses found that they underwent certain biochemical changes in the brain when they were stabled for long periods and that these changes were very similar to those that happened to people in comparable situations. Most important was the finding that often horses resorted to weaving, wind-sucking or box walking because it was their way of trying to cope with their predicament.

Consider therefore, what happens if we put up anti-weave bars or use anti wind-sucking collars or even separate the horse from all the others? We remove the horse’s innate ability to shield or protect himself from boredom and frustration and this is the main reason why these quick fix options are so cruel and should be unacceptable ways of dealing with the problem.  With say anti-weave bars, the horse is not only enduring the original stress caused by confinement but has no ability to implement coping behaviours – horse behaviours which we have unfortunately labelled as ‘vices’. The term vice implies it is the horses fault.

Hopefully, by providing horse owners with access to the Applied Science of Horse Behaviour, they will appreciate that they cannot afford to ignore such behaviours in a horse because they reflect a very severe mental condition. Such deep-seated Horse Behaviour problems also make the horse more susceptible to diseases or poor health, skin problems, allergy related problems, reproductive disorders, diet-related problems, gastric-intestinal ulceration and even more serious Equine Behaviour problems. Relying on quick fix options like anti-windsucking collars are only ignoring these cries for help from the horse and will end up being very expensive as sooner or later veterinary and help from an Equine Behaviourist will be needed as the problem begins to affect the horse’s health and performance.

And if you don’t have access to a barn you can make simpler changes to give your horse more options – for instance a horse with a small fenced area in front of his stable has twice as many options as the one locked in just a stable.  So if you can create the ideal situation great, if not get creative and do at least something to make his life closer to natural behavioural ethogram.


So if you want to live your passion: make helping horses your life skill.

We provide all the Animal Behaviour & training you need on the Equine Behaviour Qualification, to setup your very own practice:

 Follow the link:

 Or on the website choose the ‘Animal Behaviour’ tab on the home page, then then 1st item ‘Equine, Canine, Feline Behaviour Qualifications Stage I’ on the drop down menu, scroll down and click on the picture of the horse for a free Equine Behaviour Course Prospectus.