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Lighthoof: Designing a Horse Friendly Farm, Part 1

Most horse properties are designed for comfort and convenience of humans — but what would your horse want to have included?

Flickr/Eric Fleming/CC

If you’re designing or redesigning a horse farm, there are many factors to consider, such as chore efficiency, access to amenities, storage of feed and tack: the list goes on…

The truth is, the majority of barn plans and existing facilities are designed primarily for the comfort and convenience of humans. Not surprising, since it is humans, not horses, that do the planning and construction after all.

However, most of us would agree that our equine partners deserve input on factors that have such a huge effect on their daily lives. What choices would horses make if given a say in the design of their housing?

Well, based on habits of wild horses, they are unlikely to recommend that they be enclosed in a 12’ x 12’ box for more than half the day. That said, it’s very hard as humans to break free from the traditional barn model of aisles and stalls. It’s just a very practical way that we, the people doing all the work, can manage the myriad daily tasks that come with keeping horses.

The good news is, by thoughtfully weighing convenience factors with “horse friendly” choices, we can create a living environment that works with our processes while focusing on meeting our horses’ needs.

Depending on you and your horses, your space, sport, and equipment, this could look like anything from a band of horses roaming freely 24/7 around a track-fenced perimeter trail, to a neatly kept stable of box stalls with 180-degree visibility and a state of the art ventilation system.

As an example, Uta Graf, a top international dressage competitor, is known for her unconventional “natural” horse-keeping practices, where even her top equine athletes return to an open field with their friends after their training session.

Although many riders wouldn’t be comfortable leaving their horse outside at night, Uta’s horses are known for exemplifying the proverbial “happy athlete” and she says the worst injury they’ve had has been in a stall.

Whatever your needs and desires may be, this article series seeks to explore stabling from a horse’s perspective to help you evaluate the horse friendliness of different elements of your design to create the best possible facility for you and your equine partners.

The Trifecta of Horse Friendliness

A horse friendly farm seeks to optimize the ability to meet the needs of horses on three different levels: physical needs, emotional/social well-being, and mental health.

Physical

To fully address our horses’ physical needs, we have to consider fitness, nutrition, skin health, hoof health, respiratory health, digestive health, prevention of injury, and protection from disease. This is a lot to think about, but they tend to follow some patterns which we can use to use to develop an effective care and housing strategy. Many horse keepers are satisfied once the horses’ physical needs are met, but we know that you want more for your horses.

Emotional/Social

Although any horse lover will think of this as a “no duh” topic, many recent studies have been published confirming the extraordinarily high level of emotional intelligence that horses possess. The depth of their emotional understanding and their need for social connections with other horses, and even us humans, is truly moving and can not be ignored when evaluating the horse friendliness of their accommodations.

Mental Health

We’ve all seen horses whose stress level or boredom has caused them to develop mild to severe mental health issues. Sometimes these manifest as stable vices, aggression, dullness or depression. In some cases, they can even cause physical illness. While some horses are more fragile than others, there’s much that can be done to try to prevent situations that could lead to common mental health issues. Prevention is much easier on horses and humans than trying to diagnose and heal a horse who’s already suffering from mental distress.

Flickr/Jon Clegg/CC

What Horses Need

Although this seems like a complex topic, the real needs and wants of horses boil down to some pretty simple concepts. Over the next few articles in this series, we will explore each of the following needs by their place on the trifecta of horse friendliness and evaluate planning options, products, and priorities that can assist you in making the right design choices for you and your horses.

  • Movement, Movement, Movement
  • Socialization and Family Life
  • Grazing Behavior
  • Fresh Air and Sunlight
  • Rolling, Grooming, Personal Equine Hygiene
  • Healthy Environment: Footing, Flies, Mud, Dust
  • Perceived Safety from Predators
  • Injury-free Enclosures
  • Alleviation of Boredom
  • Protection from the Elements
  • Stress Reduction
  • Biosecurity
  • Nutritional and Metabolic Management
  • Hydration Availability and Preferences
  • Accommodation of Hormone-Related Behavioral Changes

When all is said and done, you will have a plan for your new farm – or ideas to upgrade your existing facility – that your horse would sign off on. Designing a horse friendly farm will not only delight your herd, but also save you money over time on corrective care, enhance your equine athlete’s ability to perform at his best and deepen the bond between your horse, you and his other equine family.

Stay tuned…

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