Is your horse happy in the stable? It’s one of the many questions that can polarize equestrians. But it’s also one that a French ethology expert tried to answer during her presentation at the 2015 French Equine Ethology Day, held in April in Saumur.
First, we can’t just look at the horse’s stall—a “box” in more than one sense of the term—but must consider the entire stable situation, said independent ethologist Hélène Roche, MSc. “We really need to see things from the horse’s point of view, not our own,” she said.
A horse expresses his happiness in the stable through emotions and behaviors, though we only see the behaviors, Roche said. Signs that a horse might be unhappy in his lodging include a depressed attitude (minimal reaction to sights and sounds, neck held slightly below the horizontal) and the development of stereotypies—cribbing, wind-sucking, weaving, excessive licking, etc.
While these visible behaviors might seem easy to read, others could be confusing or even mean the opposite of what we might think. Take, for example, the group of horses standing at the paddock gate as though they can’t wait to get back in the barn. Does that really indicate that the horse loves his stall? Roche said it could actually mean your horse’s paddock isn’t interesting enough for his basic needs.
“For the paddock to be a pleasant place for him, you can’t just have a few square yards of open space,” she said. “You need the fundamentals: something to eat, some other horses, a dry spot for rolling in, a place to get away from insects, etc. Without that, he probably does want to return to his stall!”
And even if your horse seems to “have fun” playing with balls and stall toys, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s happy, Roche said. “You see these horses having a great time with those big balls on YouTube,” she said. “And it could be that they really are having genuine fun. But it’s also possible that they’re finding a substitute for social contact, and this is the way they express being deprived of social contact, which is especially true for males.”
Probably the only stable gadget that a horse can find truly pleasant and useful in accordance with his natural behavior is a big brush, said Roche. Having a solid surface for rubbing and scratching against could make for a happier stabled horse.
Researchers are working to develop and evaluate better stabling systems that are in line with our modern understanding of equine welfare, while still respecting human convenience and time constraints, she said. In the meantime, keep an eye on your horse’s behavior—considering his world from his point of view—and adjust his environment as needed to improve his happiness.