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Housing the horse

by Andrew F. Clarke,Equine Research Centre, Guelph, Ontario

The horse spends approximately 22 hours per day in its stable. Stable design and management can have direct effects on the health of horses. Perhaps the most widely appreciated diseases in this context are those affecting the horse's respiratory well-being. However, the horse is more than just a set of lungs. The risks of other diseases and indeed direct physical trauma can be increased by poorly designed stables. The incidence of many of the so-called stable vices of horses can be increased by stable design. Stables themselves aside, problems may also arise from the design and positioning of ancillary buildings, such as feed- storage areas. Surfaces in stables, passageways and walks around stables can also increase the risk of disease and injury.


There are four basic types of stables. These are:-

i) Stalls
ii) Looseboxes
iii) Barns
iv) Combination of ii) and iii)


Stables should not be positioned near dust sources such as large hay sheds or grain dryers. Trees in close proximity can cause problems with leaves blocking drains, yet alternatively, may be useful in providing a wind-break in exposed sites.

Boxes facing just east of south, will get the benefit of morning sun, especially in winter. Rows of boxes may be staggered down a slope or slight hill, again to get full advantage of morning sun to all boxes. Avoid steep slopes, especially around corners as horses can slip over and injure themselves easily.


General recommendations for dimensions of boxes are given in Table 1. Small doorways increase the risk of horses injuring themselves. Sliding doors can be very useful. Their safety and reliability have improved considerably and half-open hinged doors tend to block or decrease the available width of passageways.

Table 1: Stable Dimensions

Type Dimension (m)
Box Stall Ponies (1xW)
Horses foaling or
Isolation box
3.0 x.3.0
3.6 x 3.6
5.0 x 5.0
Standing Stall Width (min.)
Rear passageway (min.)
Door Height


These factors are considered together because of their inter-relationship. First it must be appreciated that horses tolerate a wide range of temperatures. In an unheated building with low air movement, the only horses likely to experience cold stress are new born foals or young stock whose metabolic rates are low because of disease or malnutrition. These animals can undoubtedly be stressed by cold and an extra source of heat, such as a radiant heat lamp may be necessary. In climates such as a Canadian winter, supplemental heating is often used to prevent freezing of water pipes etc. While general hypothermia is unlikely to be a problem for well fed stabled horses wearing rugs, local hypothermia, or regional chilling, especially of limbs in extremely cold environments can be of concern in relation to comfort and the healing of injuries.

- heat loss to or gained from the fluid moving over the body of the individual
- forced and natural
- cold winds and cold water currents
- depends on size (radius of limb or trunk)

- depends on a linear difference in temperature between the body surface and an object in direct contact such as floors and bedding

- energy transfer between two objects accomplished by the exchange of electromagnetic waves
- proportional to 4th power of temperature difference between the two surfaces (highlights the benefits of rugs).

Increasing air movement (draughts) around animals has a marked chilling effect, especially if they are wet. Draughts at horse (or foal) height should be avoided. This requires careful attention for the provision of ventilation.

There are three natural forces of ventilation for stables:

1) The Stack effect, i.e. warm air rising off the horse will rise up and leave the stable drawing fresh air in.
2) Aspiration - wind blowing across the top of a stable will help to draw stale air out.
3) Perflation - wind blowing from side to side and end to end of a building will aid ventilation.

Properly placed and adequately sized vents and roof ducting are essential to make full use of these forces. Guidelines for the requirements for natural ventilation are presented in Table 2 below. However, in designing new stables or improving existing buildings, calculations for individual structures should be carried out. Allowances for exposed walls and extremes of weather likely to be met.

Table 2 shows that for most loose-boxes an open top door will provide adequate inlet area for natural ventilation. However, allowances must be made for the (heaven forbid) situation when doors are closed. A permanent vent can be placed above the front door. Most boxes should have a back wall vent as well to ensure proper air mixing and movement. For a monopitched roof, this should be high in the back wall. Boxes with a peaked roof should have a capped chimney or covered ridge to act as an outlet for warm, stale air. Draughts can be cut down by baffling vents or covering them with plastic mesh such as Netlon. This will also prevent the entry of rain or snow into boxes. It is critical to ensure thorough movement of air in a stable, especially barns.

Table 2: Requirements for natural ventilation of a typical barn horse stalls

Dimensions (per horse) Stalls Barn
Volume (m3)
Surface area of building (m2)
height from inlets to outlets (m)
Ventilation rate at 4 ac/h (m3/sec)
Ventilation heat loss at 4 ac/h (W/C)
  Insulated Uninsulated Insulated Uninsulated
"U" value of walls roof (W/m2C)
Building heat loss (W/C)
Temperature gradient (C) at 4 ac/h
Required inlet area/horse (m2)
Required outlet area/horse (m2)


One of the benefits of insulating stables is high lighted in Table 2. Insulation by maintaining a slightly greater temperature difference between the inside and outside of the stable allows smaller openings to be used to provide adequate natural ventilation in still air conditions. It must also be highlighted that the benefits of insulation in terms of warmth within an average stable will only be a matter of a few degrees centigrade unless additional forms of heating are provided.

Another advantage of insulation is that it will decrease the risk of condensation. Condensation is a tell-tale sign of poor ventilation and is the cause of the pattern-staining which often occurs in the rooves of stables.


Dark boxes where horses have little visual contact with other horses are likely to lead to behavioural problems. Box-weaving, wind-sucking and other vices often begin out of boredom. While one extreme approach, advocated by some, involves housing horses in groups, simple approaches such as providing adequate provisions for light and anti-weaving bars so that horses can put their heads out over the stable door can be beneficial.

Horses have evolved as gregarious and free ranging animals. They spend approximately 60% of their time grazing and continually move over their home range living together in close knit herds. Stables horses are restricted to one or two hours exercise per day, have restricted social interaction and fed concentrated rations which are quickly consumed. In these conditions stables horses can develop STEREOTYPIES, characterised by bouts of frequently repeated, invariant and apparently purposeless activities. Examples of these include licking, crib biting, weaving, box walking and pawing. These activities are apparently coping mechanisms for prolonged periods of frustration. Owners often find these behaviours "objectionable and irritating". However, in other species the prevention of sterotypies by restricting the animals movements has been shown to significantly increase corticosteroid concentration. Some cases respond to provision of a more stimulating environment, e.g. putting a goat or a mirror or a bouncey ball into the stable. Ultimately, the long term aim must be to identify and provide stimulating environments which help to prevent the development of sterotypiec behaviour, especially early in life.

Simple skylights can be provided by clear corrugated perspex. Sunlight has the added advantage of ultra-violet light, a natural killer of airborne bacteria and viruses. In this regard, plastic skylights with u/v pervious glass are superior to glass since the latter does not normally allow the penetration of u/v rays. As a general guide, approximately 10% skylight area in a roof is suitable.

Decreasing hours of daylight is the main stimulus for a horse to lose its summer coat and conversely increasing hours of daylight lead to the loss of a winter coat. Daylight hours have been manipulated with artificial light in stables for many years as a way of bringing mares into season early in the year. The same technique can be used to help a horse lost its winter coat. Suitable light levels can be achieved using fluorescent lighting. It is essential to ensure appropriate levels of light in the centre and the edges of all boxes.

Ordinary fluorescent bulbs providing between 100-200 lux (simple inexpensive light meters are available) are suitable. Increasing day light hours up to between 14 and 16 hours in late November is effective in stimulating the early onset of oestrus. However, there are times of light sensitivity and insensitivity during the day. Anoestrus mares can be stimulated to cycle earlier by adding 2.5 hours of artificial light after sunset but before sunrise. A one hour exposure 9 to 10 hours after natural sunset has also been shown to be effective.


Little thought is often given to the design and positioning of feed storages. Dust generated in these areas can be a health hazard for horses and humans. Fans or air filter devices are essential for these areas if they are closed in.

Storage facilities for grain and coarse mixes should be vermin proof and regularly emptied completely and cleaned. The latter is especially important in relation to forage mite which damage feeds and can cause skin problems and gut upsets in horses fed contaminated feed.

A floor gradient of between 1 in 40m and 1 in 80 is required for adequate drainage. Drains within stables should be simple and easily cleaned. Covered drains or laid pipes within stables clog quickly with most feed and bedding materials.

Muck pits are another potential health hazard at stables. Mice and rats can be attracted to muck-pits. Used plant-based bedding material moulds quickly and can be a significant source of mould spores for horses housed nearby. A typical position for a muck heap is behind stables, just below the back wall vents, thus ensuring easy access for dust generated in this area into the stables and the horses' lungs.


The design, selection and positioning of new stables or alterations to existing buildings, require careful planning to avoid unnecessary problems. The money invested in these buildings is not always an indication of their effectiveness in terms of housing the horse. The well being of horses housed in the most carefully designed stables can be compromised by the use of contaminated feeds and beddings or management practices such as deep litter bedding.

The Equine Research Centre, Guelph, Ontario This article was kindly contributed by the Equine Research Centre, Guelph, Ontario. For further information please click here

To access EquineCanada click here.

© Equine Research Centre, 1996- 2000

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