This is a great question. However, it does not have a simple yes or no answer.
The answer depends on many different factors such as:
- Health and condition of your horse
- Severity of the weather
- Stable conditions or facilities available
- Your horses diet
Health & Condition of your horse:
The health and condition of your horse is a major factor. First, we must decide if your horse is indeed geriatric. Geriatric horses are defined as being aged 15 years or older and have health issues. For example, a horse who is active and healthy at 20 is considered to be older but not geriatric, where as a horse that has chronic health issues such as Cushing’s Disease (PPID) can be considered geriatric at 15. If your horse is in good condition and healthy, it is unlikely they need to be stabled regularly. They may just need a way to shelter from adverse weather and possibly a rug. Horses in good health and body condition score can withstand temperatures as low as -34C. If your horse is geriatric and has trouble regulating body temperature or maintaining a good body condition score, then stabling on cold nights (below 10C) and during bad weather may be beneficial. It is always a good idea to monitor your horse’s temperature regularly. The normal core body temperature for a horse is 38C. Just because you may be cold, does not mean your horse is cold. Your horse may be very happy outside in winter even without a rug. If they get a nice long fluffy winter coat, then putting a rug on them may even be detrimental as it flattens the hair coat and reduces the nice warm air pockets the fluffy hair creates. Walking around also helps to keep horses warm, if they are in a stable, they will lose the ability to move around to keep warm. Geriatric horses also benefit from light exercise to keep fit and healthy. If they are stabled, they will not be able to keep their joints moving as freely as they could in a pasture. You may notice that a geriatric horse will get puffy or stiff legs if they are stabled too much.
Stable conditions are a major factor in deciding if your geriatric horse should be stabled. Things to consider in stabling:
- Size of stable
- Weather proofing
- Mental health of horse
Size of stable: If your stable is too small for your horse, they will have a very difficult time getting up and down. If you notice that your geriatric horse does not lie down while they are stabled this could mean they have some pain, or their stable is too small for them to lie down comfortably and you may need a larger stable or may have underlying issues with their joints or muscles. If your horse cannot rest properly in a stabled situation then it may be a better idea to leave them outside or at least give them a choice if they want to be stabled by letting them have free access to a yard or pasture from their stable.
Stable Bedding: Proper bedding material for a geriatric horse is very important. You want them to be warm and dry, but you also need to consider is the bedding safe for them. Straw is an excellent warm bedding material; however, straw alone may be too slippery for a geriatric horse. Shavings or a layer of shavings under the straw may be a good idea to help them feel more stable under foot and help absorb moisture. Nonslip rubber matting under bedding will help to give your horse a good footing and insulate as well. Sand can also be a good option for horses with laminitic issues as a soft surface for them to sink their toes into if they have sore feet. Sand in winter, however, can be cold and not remain very dry, so a layer of straw over the top will help to insulate heat and draw moisture away.
You should ensure that the bedding material you use has a low dust content and is completely free of mould. If your geriatric horse has allergies or respiratory issues, you will have to consider this when choosing a bedding material. The stable should also be cleaned daily, allowing urine and faeces to build up can cause serious health issues in stabled horses. Ammonia from urine can cause respiratory issues for example.
Ventilation: A good stable should be clean, dry, warm, and free of heavy drafts. Ventilation is an important consideration. You want the stable to be warm and free from heavy drafts, but you do not want the air quality to be poor. Make sure your stable as a good supply of fresh air for your geriatric horse.
Pests: Pests in stables are always an issue. For the geriatric horse, it can be an even bigger problem. They may not be able to fend for themselves as well as they could when they were younger. If they cannot get away from pests then stabling them where they are constantly annoyed by insects and vermin, may not be a good idea. Try to keep your stables as pest free as possible so your geriatric horse can rest in peace.
Mental Health: Stabling a geriatric horse may be the best option for their physical wellbeing, but is it the best choice for their mental health? Some horses do very well in stables and love the safety and security as well as the constant food and attention. Sadly, for other horses it is torture for them to be trapped and away from their friends and the environment they are used to. If your geriatric horse is not used to being stabled, it may be quite a shock to them and cause them stress. Stress in a geriatric horse can be the beginning of the end for them and is very serious. It may be kinder to leave them outside and not stable them at all. Here are some signs that your horse is stressed and may not be coping well with being stabled:
- Stereotypies: Weaving, Crib Biting, Pawing, Box Walking
- Calling out to other horses.
- Decreased appetite
- Loose faeces
If they must be stabled, try to keep it as stress free as possible. Here are some things that may help:
- Stable them with a friend nearby.
- Slow feeder systems
Your geriatric horse’s diet:
The last important factor to consider before stabling your geriatric horse is nutrition. A stabled horse has much different requirements than a horse on pasture. As most feeds assume a horse has access to pasture when they are created, ask your nutritionist to formulate a diet for a stabled horse. Make sure your horse is getting a minimum of 1.5% of its body weight in forage to help maintain a healthy gastrointestinal system. Offer a Ranvet Salt Lick to make sure they are getting vital nutrients, keeping hydrated, and prevent boredom.
Written by Neely Hopkins BS RVT