By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA and Diane Weinmann
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France
Is your horse happy in the stable? Well, I can tell you from experience that most of the time he is happy if everyone else is in their stalls. If he is alone in the barn and waiting for me to come out- let’s just say he is VERY happy to see me when I show up. On the other hand—on days, especially when we have had quite a few in a row, that he was unable to go outside (they usually get turned out daily weather permitting) he shows his displeasure by pooping in either his water bucket or food tray. Crazy, right? I mean he has to eat or drink out of it there so what is the deal? He is showing his extreme displeasure in the only way that makes sense to him by technically saying this NOT going out is CRAP!!! I laugh for a minute then groan when I am stuck cleaning it out. Sometimes I am lucky enough to be just told about by the unhappy person that found it first and cleaned it up like the angel they are!
But seriously….is your horse happy in the stable is a very important question and one 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. (Pooping in abnormal places!!)
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. I have not been able to find something like this for my horse’s stall so inventors get going!
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 and pray he doesn’t poop in his water bucket…ewwwww!