box stalls and welfare

A gilded cage is still a cage.

For horses, “gilded cages” come in the form of luxurious box stalls, clean and maintained, with modern sliding doors, windows to the outside, padded mats, wide aisles between the rows of stalls, and riding facilities just outside the main entrance. Maybe these stalls are “enriched,” with bars between the stalls so horses can see and touch their neighbours. Maybe the horses have voluminous, fresh straw bedding, and extra portions of feed in the day… “to keep them happy.”

All these extra efforts might be making you feel a little better, believing your horse is “lucky” or even “spoiled,” living in such an immaculate place and with so much extra attention to details. But according to French behaviour researchers, they’re not actually making your horse feel much better. Regardless of what you do to improve the environment, an individual box stall is still an individual box stall, depriving the horse from many natural and social behaviours – and thereby compromising his welfare.

“The horse, which has lived in open spaces for the last several millennia with unrestricted access to forage and especially while establishing strong and complex social relationships with other horses, just isn’t made for living alone isolated in a box, regardless of how ‘well set up’ it is,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behaviour science department, in Tours.

“This isn’t meant to be an attack on owners who keep their horses in box stalls at times!” explained Lansade. She herself used to keep her horses in box stalls, she added, believing it was best for their welfare. “The results of my studies made me realize that this housing system isn’t adapted to them. Now I’m hoping to share that knowledge so that we can start to see husbandry evolve.”

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) promotes the principles of the “five freedoms” for horses and all other land animals. These freedoms include: freedom from hunger, malnutrition and thirst; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from heat stress or physical discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour. Enclosing horses in box stalls deprives horses of most, and in some cases all, of these freedoms, according to Lansade.

The longer they live in box stall conditions, the worse they fare, she added. And no amount of “enrichment” can counteract these negative effects on their welfare.

“Research has shown repeatedly that horses have better welfare living continuously at pasture, but many people continue to be reticent about allowing their horses to do that,” Lansade said. “These people often think that by correctly renovating their stables—placing windows in the stalls, taking down bars, modifying the feeding program, etc.—they can make the horses better off. Some people spend a small fortune carrying out these kinds of renovations! So we really needed to investigate whether these efforts were benefiting the horses. And the reality is, they’re just not changing very much.”

That’s not a reason to do nothing, however, she added. Some contact with other horses is better than no contact, and having windows with fresh air can have some advantages. Prolonged access to hay can also contribute to better welfare than restricting their intake. However, these “improvements” are relatively minor in the face of what these horses really need—free movement and social contact and unlimited opportunity to graze.

In cases in which horses have to be in box stalls, temporarily or even over a longer term because of health issues or other unavoidable constraints, they would benefit most from getting out to move freely as much as possible, according to Lansade. “Whatever the situation, handlers need to try to take these horses out of the stall as much and as consistently as possible, with full liberty in a field with other horses whom they get along with very well,” she said.

Lansade observed 187 Warmblood sport horses housed in individual box stalls in four barns over nine months, strolling discretely along the rows of stalls on 50 random days during that period. She checked specifically for any of four behavioural signs of poor welfare: stereotypies (crib-biting, wind-sucking, weaving), aggression towards humans (biting, threats), fixed body posture (neck and back at about the same level with low ears and poor response to any kind of stimulus, similar to a depressive state in humans), and stress behaviours such as keeping the head and neck raised, being excessively alert, or vocalizing.

She compared her observations with various “enrichment” efforts like different kinds of window and bar openings, various kinds of bedding, and the presence of commercial or homemade “horse toys.”

Of all these enrichment efforts, only three showed any correlation with welfare-related behaviours at all. Straw bedding, a window opening to the outside, and a reduced quantity of concentrated feeds had “beneficial, although limited, effects,” Lansade said. Furthermore, horses who had lived in box stalls longer showed even more pronounced signs of reduced welfare.

“Removing some window bars, adding an extra meal of concentrated feed—these don’t really serve much purpose,” she explained. “I’d challenge people to spend a day, a week, or even a month in the life a horse and see how that affects us! It’s time to get back to good common sense.”

The study Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare by Ruet A, Lemarchand J, Parias C, Mach N, Moisan M-P, Foury A, Briant C, Lansade L. is published in the open access journal Animals and can be read here.