Can Horses Live Without a Stable?
Shelter from the elements is a component of survival for all mammals, including horses. The type of shelter necessary will depend on a variety of factors, not least of which is the climate. You may be wondering what kind of shelter a horse requires.
Do all horses need a stable? Most horses do not require a stable at all but can live happily with a simple run-in shed or even a large tree canopy to stand under, depending on the climate. Living entirely outdoors is known to have a positive effect on both the physical and mental health of horses due mainly to the fresh air and the increase in mobility. There are situations where stables are convenient, however, including the control of feed intake and the care of a sick or injured horse.
If you watch television shows or movies about horses, you may be left with the impression that a stable is a necessity for domestic equines, but that isn’t true in most scenarios. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of 24/7 turnout, what sufficient shelter is for most horses, and what kind of weather is tolerable for our equine friends.
What is a Horse Stable?
Before we dive in, let’s explain some terminology. A stable is a building where horses are housed in individual stalls. Stables may also be referred to as barns, with the only difference being that barns can also be used for other livestock and even for equipment and hay storage, while the word “stable” implies there are horses involved.
People have been housing their horses in stables for thousands of years. King Solomon is known for the description of his stables in the Bible, with 2 Chronicles 9:25 stating “and Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities with the king in Jerusalem.” 1 Kings says it is actually 40,000 horse stalls.
Regardless of which is more accurate, I can’t picture in my mind what a barn of either size must have looked like. The first preserved horse stable is even older than King Solomon’s; in the 1200s BC, Ramesses II of Ancient Egypt had a 180,000-square-foot stable that could house almost 500 horses.
Does Every Horse Need a Stable?
Regardless of where ancient Egyptian and Israelite royalty housed their horses, the vast majority of horses did not, and today do not need a stable to live in. Horses deserve a reprieve from severe weather, including significant wind, rain, and heat. They should also have dry ground to lie down and rest. Having shelter from the elements is important for a horse’s health and well-being.
If living in a temperate climate, a horse can thrive with simply an adequate tree canopy for shelter. The largest feral horse populations are the Australian brumbies and the American mustangs. Both of these regions are dry and temperate, and the horses require nothing but shade from a tree during the hottest part of the day. That said, horses can thrive even in blizzards with a simple run-in as opposed to an enclosed stable.
What is a Run-In for Horses?
A run-in is a three-sided shelter horses can go in when they deem it necessary. Many horses prefer to have a run-in as opposed to a stable because they can come and go as they please. My personal horse likes to stand in his run-in on hot Summer days to escape the heat and the flies.
Run-ins are also much less expensive to erect and require fewer cleanings because the horses do not spend as much time in them as they would a stall. Run-ins are designed to be erected against the wind so that the horses are protected from the wind chill effect. They can be made in a variety of different designs, some having one side completely open, while others may have a gate that can be closed if needed.
What Temperature is Too Cold for Horses to Be Outside?
Horses have a natural winter coat, and you may be surprised at the low temperatures that they can tolerate. According to the University of Minnesota, horses are most comfortable in temperatures between 18 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, but unless there is significant wind or moisture, can tolerate roaming the pasture at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
With access to an adequate shelter, most horses that have been properly acclimated can tolerate temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. This brings up an important distinction; a horse that can tolerate extremely low temperatures will have to be acclimated to those weather conditions. It would be unsafe to move a horse from Florida to Minnesota and expect it to brave the winter before a slow introduction to the cold.
The Benefits of Horses Living Stable-Free
There is general agreement that for most horses, in most climates, 24/7 turnout has many benefits. Even in a bitter snowstorm, you will see many horses that prefer the pasture to their shelter. Benefits of living without a stable include:
- Fresh air – having access to fresh air is not only beneficial to a horse’s mental well-being but is also good for the lungs. In a stable, ammonia, dust, and other chemicals and particulates can quickly accumulate, irritating a horse’s sensitive respiratory system.
- Exercise – having adequate exercise is crucial to a horse’s mental and physical health. Exercise keeps the brain, heart, lungs, and other organs happy, protects the joints and muscular-skeletal system, and keeps the horse active and engaged.
- Maintenance – horses that live in stables require daily stall clean-outs. Maintaining a run-in shed is much easier and less time-consuming than cleaning a stall. How often it gets cleaned out will depend on how much time the horses spend in the run-in. And generally, not as much bedding will need to be used, because the ground is usually softer than the floor of a stall.
The Benefits of Living With a Stable
Of course, stables have not been around for thousands of years for no reason. In some situations, stables are not only convenient but also a necessity. Some of the reasons having a horse stable makes sense include:
- Isolating a sick horse – caring for ill horses is part of caring for horses, and that becomes much easier when you have a stall. Having a stable to house a sick horse can help with quarantine, observation, and the administration of medication.
- Containing an injured horse – while I believe the benefits of 24/7 turnout outweigh the negatives in many situations, horses with freedom can come with risk. Horses are susceptible to injuries, and an injured horse usually needs a space to be confined for both healing and to keep from re-injuring themselves.
- Controlling feed intake – There are many situations where a horse may need his intake strictly controlled. Spending time in a stall will ensure that your horse eats nothing except what you provide him.
- Severe weather – while horses can tolerate most weather conditions when outdoors, it may be necessary to protect your horse from very severe weather, especially if he or she is not already acclimated to your climate. Our pasture is surrounded by large, mature trees. There are times when our storms are so severe that a tree will come down. I prefer my animals to be safe in their barn during these storms.
- Showing your horse – many equestrians choose to stable their show horses, for several reasons. It protects them from an injury they can sustain in the pasture, it keeps them clean and out of the mud, and it is easier to manage their coat. If you stall your show horse, it is important that they have significant daily turnout time so that they can exercise and stretch their legs.
- Breeding – of course, if you plan to breed your mare, you will need a stall to confine her. This is helpful so that you can observe her closely and jump in if or when she needs help.
To Stable or Not to Stable?
Whether or not you decide to use a stable depends on your climate, your horse, and your own lifestyle. For some, using a stable at night is more convenient for the day-to-day care of a horse. For others, having to go outside to turn out their horse and bring them in every morning and evening negates that convenience. Fortunately, most horses do not require a stable to be housed overnight, so you can likely get away with a simple run-in or other shelter until you decide what you would like to do.
To learn more about the amount of space you need for horses, whether it’s stall size or pasture size, check out my article How Much Space Do Horses Need? Horse Care Guide.