As winter descends upon us, many of our horses and ponies will be spending more time stabled. Stabling gives saturated pasture a rest, gives our horse a dry place to stand and for many owners on livery yards, is enforced during the winter months. Of course, some horses are kept mostly stabled all year round.
A stable is not the ideal environment for a horse, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because horses are healthiest when allowed the freedom to roam with a group of other horses. Stabling increases the risk of colic and challenges the respiratory system, even with the cleanest of bedding and forage. Stabling also increases the risk of the development of abnormal stereotypic behaviour (previously called vices).
So how can we make the stabling experience healthier for our horses? From a feeding point of view, some little changes can make a big difference.
Researchers have shown that stabled horses will choose multiple forages in multiple locations, when given the choice. They will also spend more time looking over a stable door, moving around and foraging in straw bedding when given a single forage rather than a choice of six. Giving horses a choice of several types of forage seems to encourage their foraging behaviour and therefore enrich their environment. Bedding on straw gives the horse another type of forage and ensures he never runs out. You could also give your stabled horse a feed-decanting ball with fibre or ground forage nuts in it and/or hang on string or drop root veg on the stable floor.
If you choose different bedding to straw – perhaps because your horse has recurrent airway disease (RAO, previously called COPD) – then ensure you feed enough forage. Horses fasted for longer than four hours are at an increased risk of stomach (gastric) ulcers, because they produce stomach acid continuously. If your horse finishes his overnight haynet by midnight and he isn’t being fed again until 7 or 8am in the morning, he is at risk of gastric ulcers.
Exactly why stabled horses are at increased risk of colic is not fully understood, but it may be linked to lack of movement, a dry diet and/or because stabled horses tend to be fed more concentrate feed and less forage. Aim to supply as much of your horse’s nutrients from forage, adding other feeds only to make up for what is missing from the forage. Many stabled horses would be healthier if their forage was increased and their bucket feed replaced with a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement. Feed only as much concentrate as is required and choose fibre-based rather than starch-rich cereal-based concentrates. Feed succulents and consider soaked feeds to increase water intake, and ensure horses stabled for long periods get regular exercise.