Every winter, we at the Equine Science Center get asked, “Is it OK for horses to live outside? Shouldn’t they be brought in to a heated barn?” At the young age of 42, I prefer to live outside. I simply cannot be contained! Some of my equine friends, like the horses in the research herd here at Rutgers, also live outside 24/7. Other friends of mine go into a stall at night. Why the difference? Is one better than the other? Well, as with most things, the answer is, it depends!
Given time to adapt to the changing climate, warm or cold, horses can survive with few problems living outside. All we really need is plenty of good hay and unfrozen water in the winter. Some of us may require grain or another type of supplement to stay healthy. Oh, and we also need access to a shelter! This doesn’t necessarily mean coming into a stall – a 3-sided structure (like the ones at Rutgers) that faces open toward the south is ideal. This way, we can get lots of sun in the winter, and shade in the summer, and a wind-break all year round.
Having a clean, dry place to lie down will also help us conserve body heat on a chilly day. Outdoor living is also good for horses with breathing problems or arthritis. The constant supply of fresh air helps prevent dust and small particles from getting into the lungs and causing irritation. The ability to constantly move about helps keep joints from getting stiff, too.
Some of the students here at Rutgers board their horses nearby, and they live in stalls (the horses, not the students!) The key to indoor living is ventilation and exercise. Barns need fresh air all the time, even when it’s cold outside. But ventilation is not the same as a chilly draft. It’s OK to leave windows open to allow fresh air in, and dust, ammonia and moisture out. Well-designed barns have vents near the rooflines to allow proper air exchange.
Elderly horses, very young foals or horses with health issues can often benefit from having a stall at night, and a cozy blanket. Very young and, ahem, very old horses can’t always regulate their body temperature the same way our friends in between can, so we need some extra help in extreme temperatures. However, living inside means fewer chances to stretch our legs. So, daily turnout becomes even more important. If you ride during the winter, that’s great! Exercise helps keep our digestive system functioning properly, our joints and muscles mobile, and our minds active. Even a nice walk on the trail will be beneficial.
As long as a horse is not shivering, has hay, water, shelter and is in good body condition, outdoor living is perfectly fine. If your horse lives in a stall, be sure to provide a chance to exercise and stretch, along with plenty of fresh air!
Until Next Time!