Over the years I have more than once, blamed a groom for forgetting to bolt the stable door when finding my horse loose on the yard. Then one day I witnessed my mare jumping out of her stable! Well that’s putting it more mildly than what really happened when my horse escaped. Continue reading “Aggression Doesn’t Always Mean Dangerous”
Those were the words the livery used to inform me that her horse could not be part of a herd. This horse could not have a field mate. There would be no swishing tail to turn and face during the summer to deter the flies from bothering her eyes, or a restful sleep while the other horses stood guard looking out for danger. No mutual grooming would ever occur, and there would be no comfort from having a leader, or being the leader. This particular horse could not have a field mate because, in her words, her horse would kill other horses.
A vet once said to me By the time the horse shows pain, the damage is already severe. Those words sent me down the road of wanting to fully understand equine body language, instinct and psychology. I have now adapted those words to fit what I believe is true, which is By the time a human identifies pain in the horse, the damage is already severe.
Every single one of the horses caught my attention, in terms of equine behaviour there was a lot to observe. Most of the behaviour was instigated by a human walking through the gate that led to the paddocks. All 7 horses whinnied and most of them ran to their own fence-lines. Being early December the grass was almost depleted, snow and a few hard frosts will ensure the paddocks will soon be decimated. The horses were overly spooky, they only needed a very minor excuse to take flight while kicking up their heels. One of the horses was continually walking the fence line, creating a track that had turned to mud. Those very worn muddy tracks appear in every field, at every yard every winter. Instinct is telling the horse to move on to pastures new, but being restricted by fencing, the legs continue to walk a journey that leads to nowhere. The behaviour in all these animals is driven by a lack of food, they are either hungry or are aware resources are becoming scarce.
On yards all over England this time of year liveries will be complaining their horses are rude, impatient, even feisty. People find themselves frantically clutching lead-ropes while their horse drags them either to the field, or to the stable. Others are dreading having to deal with several kicking, spooky horses at a very muddy gateway while trying to retrieve their own horse out of the field. The majority of these owners will understand that their horse is feeling hungry. The majority of these owners will also very likely do something about the situation, by giving the horse more food.
This is a mistake. Continue reading “Winter Grumpiness? Food Is Not The Answer!”
The horse caught my eye simply by the way it was standing. There was something about its demeanour that seemed off. There was no back leg resting, the head wasn’t lowered and the ears were pinned. Furthermore the horse was tilting slightly backwards to remove the weight off its front legs. This wasn’t a horse at rest, no snoozing was occurring here, it looked like a marble statue. Laminitis seemed obvious, probably likely, but I also considered colic or even overheating, which in some cases can be connected. The most apparent thing about this animal which wouldn’t depend on a vet diagnosis was that it was morbidly obese. I had considered overheating because the horse was a heavyweight native breed of the British Isles…and it was wearing a rug on a mild autumn day. This horse had been clipped but for no real reason that I was aware of, as it could not even be considered to be in light work. Continue reading “Heavyweight Should Not Mean Overweight”
For a period of time my office was located at an equestrian establishment, just a couple of feet to the right of my desk behind the wall was a stable, and a string of stables beyond that. An ideal location for someone as fanatical and passionate about horses as myself. I thought so also at first, but it quickly became apparent this location was detrimental to my health. The itchy eyes and coughing fits started from day one, although at the time I put it down to being slightly off colour, these things happen.
I also changed from wearing contact lenses to glasses as I thought perhaps staring at the computer screen was straining my eyes, unfortunately the glasses made no difference. Over the next few weeks it occurred to me I was not having the same coughing fits and itchy eyes when at home.
The situation became awkward for me as my boss would come into the office to discuss work, and I would either cough all the way through the meeting, or have to leave to get some fresh air. So that was the second thing that occurred on me, when I left to get some fresh air, the coughing would diminish. I found that over time the periods of having to leave the office were becoming more frequent. It’s really not a good look for an employee to be walking out the office every 30 minutes. I became quite worried that I must appear lazy. Truth is, I just couldn’t breathe.
I’ve been on yards my entire life and not suffered like that, but in hindsight I realise sitting next to a stable is not the same as walking out to paddocks, checking horses, grooming and riding etc because I am moving about in the fresh air, as opposed to breathing in stable air over an entire working day.
So what is in the air?
While researching equine respiratory problems recently for my articles concerning soaking hay and using particular types of bedding, it would appear the air in stables can contain excessive concentrations of airborne dust, moulds, viruses, bacteria, spores, aeroallergens, and endotoxins (Saastamoinen M et al 2015). Rather worryingly, and if anyone thinks it’s ok not to muck out thoroughly, and very frequently, this report also states that the levels of ammonia detected in the morning were high enough to be considered dangerous to both humans and horses.
Would you want to eat in a toilet?
NH3 (ammonia) is extremely irritating to the mucous membranes that line the mouth, eyes and respiratory tract. Breathing in NH3 could cause chronic and acute respiratory disease which is one of the leading causes of wastage in horses used in high performance athletic endeavours and commonly recognized in pleasure horses as well (Hernandez and Hawkins 2001). Concentrations were found to be higher below 2 metres, and highest at ground level, now consider the height of a haynet, manger or even feeding the horse from the floor. Ammonia can rise and dissipate, but not when exposed to moisture and/or humid conditions, the two things stables have an abundance of.
This report also discusses something I have pondered over for a very long time which is, even if you are buying the best bedding money can buy, if your neighbour isn’t, then your efforts could be for nothing. Your horse will still be breathing air that could be considered harmful.
Gunky eyes? Herbal treatments and eye drops wont solve the problem
So what can be done?
There is going to be a level of dust and particles small enough to enter the lungs in hay, haylage, bedding and feed. Also dust in general, look at the filth that gathers on rugs and lines the stable wall. Stable yards would benefit from being kept clean with minimal or no paraphernalia such as liveries belongings, spare rugs, boots etc. Keep it elsewhere such as a tack or rug room. Hanging gear on the stable walls promotes the collection of harmful dust and bacteria. Also buy the best quality feed and bedding that you can afford. Feed could be sprayed with water and hay soaked for one hour in cold water.
Ideally if the environment can be kept clean, then removing urine and droppings immediately could minimise the build-up of harmful toxins. Hosing down the floors and walls daily would also create a far cleaner environment.
Personally I feel equestrians are between a rock and a hard place however.
While rubber matting may have its benefits it’s too heavy and cumbersome to pull out every day to hose off manure. If you have ever flipped over a mat, you will agree its filthy and it stinks, well that stink is what your horse is breathing in. In my experience shavings absorb urine more efficiently than straw, with straw it tends to spread across the floor surface, rather than being contained in one area. Yet both straw and shavings contain dust. What we need is better bedding and mat options. But all this sounds time consuming and expensive? Yes but perhaps it should be if it benefits the health of our horses.
Maybe I am asking the impossible. But the best course of action in my view to guarantee your horse is not breathing air which has the potential to damage its health is to limit the amount of time it spends in a stable.
Looking back I feel positive about working in such close proximity to stables, this was a walled office also, yet the level of airborne particles and ammonia were still enough to irritate my lungs and eyes. Quite literally coughing my guts up gave me a good level of understanding in how horses must feel.
I was able to remove myself from the situation, horses cannot.
Saastamoinen M, Särkijärvi S, Hyyppä S (2015) Reducing Respiratory Health Risks to Horses and Workers: A Comparison of Two Stall Bedding Materials. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, Animals (Basel). 2015 Dec; 5(4): 965–977 [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 3rd October 2017)
Hernandez J, D.L. Hawkins (2001) Race-start characteristics and risk of catastrophic musculoskeletal injury in Thoroughbred racehorses. J. Am. Vet. Med. Ass. 218:83-86 [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 5th October 2017)
Image: photos on Pexels are free for any personal and commercial purpose and are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. Attribution is not required.
I understand the reasons why people stable their horses, especially over winter, I have done it myself. It’s actually very convenient to roll up to the yard and have a horse all ready to tack up. It saves time on hiking out to the paddock, washing muddy legs and slipping off filthy rugs. Grooming can be completed relatively quickly also, especially if you have picked out the plasticine-like strands of mud out of the mane and tail the night before, and gone home leaving the horse clean. The less time spent moving through 12 inches of sticky mud also means the horse is less likely to lose a shoe. Mud fever is another issue, but one I believe can be managed if owners have the time. Other reasons for stabling could include managing laminitis and weight, reducing the risk of injury, and on occasion if a yard has more horses than land, minimising the risk of paddocks becoming depleted of grass and turning into a quagmire.
But most of the reasons I have listed benefit just one type of mammal…the human.
I have yet to observe a horse that displays discomfort or displeasure from being caked in mud, in fact what I have observed is horses displaying discomfort or displeasure from being stabled. Horses that wait at the gate, or come galloping over when called only do so because the stable has become the equine equivalent of the dinner table. I can certainly recall the thunderous steps of my family bolting down the stairs when I have called Dinner is ready!
It should be taken into account that horses do not naturally stand still for long when eating either. From my observations it appears they graze off grass in two, sometimes three mouthfuls then take a step forward. They continually move, and they would naturally roam in the wild from doing this. It’s a nice design of nature as manure is left far behind as they move onto pastures new. We have all heard owners say My horse always wants the grass on the other side of the fence, when actually they just want to move forward, they do not want to eat around their own manure.
This is the movement in my view that keeps them fit, as opposed to 18 + hours (23 even 24 hours in some cases) in a stable, standing still and eating a hay net in just one location. Numerous problems arise every single year during and after winter. Usually the same problems as last year, yet too numerous to include here in just one article. But the most obvious and the most common is colic. Come spring people expect the gut of the horse to switch from being fed haylage all winter to lush green grass without issue. A problem mostly seen in the UK at least, especially on large yards where turnout has been restricted for 6 months.
Circumstances leading to illness, at least specific to where I live, could easily be avoided if the winter routine could be managed properly. The horse should be turned out but also be taken to grass if the paddock is depleted of it. Still turnout in that quagmire, but also lead or ride your horse to any available grass and let them graze for an hour or two. Hay in the field can be supplied but it should be located in different areas, horses will at least keep moving as they move from pile to pile. Movement helps the digestive system function properly, and minimises the build up of gas in the intestinal tract. However owners will say they would do all of these things if they had the time. It begs the question, should we be keeping horses then, if we prefer a clean horse with all its shoes, un-poached paddocks, and the convenience of a stable even if it means compromising their health?
Catastrophic injury leading to box rest is obviously necessary at times. However if a stable is not being used for this purpose, then careful consideration should be taken over whether stabling is correct and justifiable in regards to the animals mental and physical well being. Using a stable should be hard work and time consuming, specially over winter, and I applaud those people that manage it well. I know of 2 nurses that turn out their horses at the crack of dawn, do a 12 hour shift, and are back at the stables bringing their horses in by torch light. This is on top of running a family home, looking after an aging relative and everything else they have got going on. Sadly these attentive owners are rare, and its more the case owners refrain from turning out because it’s a long walk to the paddock in the rain and wind.
I understand everyone tries their best, but if the owner has the slightest doubt their best isn’t good enough, either don’t use a stable, or do not own a horse.
Image Credit: AuthorAgnosticPreachersKid (2012)This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A horse stable near Middletown, Virginia
We have all seen the large containers on yards containing a murky black liquid ready for soaking hay overnight, and we have all seen owners spraying filled hay-nets with the hose pipe for 30 seconds. So in the management of laminitis, polysaccharide storage myopathy, hyperkalemic periodic paralysis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is the correct method?
Recent research has shown that hay should be soaked in clean fresh water for one hour, half this time if the water is warm. Owners may assume that the longer they leave the hay to soak, then it increases the chance the water will remove every last shred of damaging substance the hay may contain. However they are also vastly reducing the amount of nutrients and minerals that their horse needs to stay fit and healthy.
Further to this if you are soaking hay to remove sugars and starches as part of your horse’s condition management, laminitis for example then they still need carbohydrates in their diet. Aim to reduce the levels of sugar and starch, rather than removing them completely.
All horses, even diseased ones, require carbohydrates in their diet. The very low nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) content in hay soaked for greater than 1 hour, combined with increased fiber amounts (fiber components are not water soluble, thus they become more concentrated in soaked hay), brings into question the palatability and availability of nutrients in hay soaked for longer periods of time (Martinson K et al 2017).
Chewing on hay that has been soaking for a number of hours must be the equivalent of humans chewing on wet cardboard, both in taste and nutrient content. The other thing that occurs is that soaking wet hay-nets get hung up to drain and left, even all day or night. This is somewhat baffling considering the hay may have been soaked in order to remove harmful dust, yet is then left as the perfect environment for the production of mould, the spores of which can produce similar symptoms to the condition the owner is trying to manage.
Consider what the water contains once the hay is removed. Everything that has been leached out by the water is now a biological, chemical, dusty and dirty soup. Replace this water (responsibly) with clean water as opposed to re-using the same water to soak another hay-net in.
Give more thought to what you are feeding your horse. While going to great lengths to care for them you may unintentionally be damaging their health by feeding unpalatable, nutrient poor, mouldy hay.
Martinson K, Hathaway M, Jung H, Sheaffer C (2017) Hay soaking: all washed up or a good management option? University of Minnesota [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 25th September 2017)
Many horse owners will assume the spring and summer grass will exacerbate laminitis so restrict grazing over the warmer months. However grass will accumulate sugar during the winter which is influenced by the cooler temperatures, over-cast days and longer nights. All of which will impact photosynthesis and respiration in plants. Horses with previous hoof damage from laminitis can also be affected by restricted blood flow during the cold weather, which will impede temperature regulation of the hooves over winter. Something of a double whammy right there.
It is often the case owners will wait until the horse is showing symptoms of laminitis before taking action. Yet laminitis could already be affecting the horse with no outward physical signs. Owners also increase feed quantity over winter instead of taking the opportunity to encourage weight loss in overweight horses.
While extra fibre may be beneficial over winter adding extra calories could be detrimental to the horse’s health, so take careful consideration over what horses are consuming to reduce the risk. While many horses adapt to the cold weather without issue, horses with circulatory hoof damage will experience pain as blood supply is restricted (Kellon E 2017).
Laminitis is a complicated disease and causation can be multitudinous although studies continue. While science may not have all the answers yet it is certain that preventative measures should be taken over 12 months of the year, rather than just over spring and summer.
Kellon E (2017) Combating Winter Laminitis, Horse Network [ONLINE] Available at:
(Accessed 25th September 2017)
I slowed my car and carefully drove onto the grass bank as there wasn’t a safe place to park on the narrow country lane. The moment I spotted the horse I could tell something was wrong. I wondered how many drivers had passed this location and either didn’t spot the problem, or didn’t care. I slowly approached the horse while uttering soothing words, the words didn’t matter, perhaps I was just trying to calm myself. The animal was surrounded by at least 2 days’ worth of manure, and this angered me. I reached down the leg and tried to remove the fencing wire that was wrapped several times around the fetlock. But one pair of hands wasn’t enough. I needed someone to stop the horse from pulling back from pain. I envisioned the horse damaging itself further, probably catastrophically. I called the fire-brigade and told them to leave the sirens off.