Why horses are like that

Many people know how to swing a hammer. Anyone can go to a lumberyard and buy materials. Lots of people can figure out how to put up a building.

The difference between a professional and a “pick-up Pete” is knowledge.  We’re talking about knowledge of construction practices, safety measures and the specialized knowledge needed to build successfully for the safety and well being of animals.  Specifically horses.

Builders who understand the critical design elements of building for horses will discover that savvy horsepersons will come running to their doors.  The basis for designing horse barns that truly fit the needs of their occupants is an understanding of the evolution of the species. Each piece of the puzzle interlocks with the next piece and, when viewed together, gives a practical blueprint of how to build the perfect facility from the horse’s perspective.

Big and getting bigger

We know that horses are big; but through the available modern training and breeding advances and nutrition, horses — just like people — are getting bigger.  It’s more than a question of needing enough space. The fact that horses are large creates vulnerabilities, namely, inertia and heat management problems.

The average horse is about 15 hands tall.  That means a 5’5” tall person can just see over their backs at the whither, and they weigh, on average, right around 1,000 pounds. The larger the animal, the more important it is to consider inertia and heat management and the digestion processes.

The average horse produces 31 pounds of manure and 2.5 gallons of urine a day.  In addition, a horse’s thermal inertia range is from 15 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Thermal inertia is the temperature point at which a horse is comfortable. It neither shivers from cold nor sweats to dissipate heat. That means, an 82-degree day that humans find perfect is very warm for a horse that prefers 55 degrees.

Not only do horses take up a lot of space, they are naturally claustrophobic. What does that mean from a horse’s perspective? It means the stall needs to be big enough to prevent a horse from feeling cramped. That makes him nervous

A good rule of thumb is 1.5 times the horse’s body length from nose to tail. The bigger the horse, the bigger the stall.

Horses develop bad habits when they are stalled in cramped places. Some habits are annoying, some destructive and others are health risks like cribbing, also called wind sucking. This bad habit, for those who aren’t familiar with horses, is thought to be primarily a result of boredom, but it can also cause digestive problems. Cribbing horses grab the edge of something with their teeth and suck in air. But wind sucking also gives a horse an endorphin "high" that is addictive. So the habit is hard to break.

“A horse with nothing to do may learn to amuse himself by wind sucking or gnawing the stall or any other wood that is accessible,” says Kathryn Houpt, DVM, PhD and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University in New York.

At home in the arctic

Horses evolved in dry northern climates, where they developed an efficient but vulnerable breathing system. This makes air quality critical.  Building with air quality in mind involves the most important design consideration — ventilation.

Many times people build their stables so they are comfortable for the humans who spend time there; they insulate the building and make it airtight.  For the horses, the results can be disastrous. Horses get wheezy, and they get coughs and they become ill.

Ventilation is essential for long-term horse health.  Horses put 2 to 5 gallons of moisture into the atmosphere every day.  A well-ventilated building will reduce condensation in a non-insulated building; proper insulation will eliminate condensation.

Passive ventilation is the most effective and the least expensive.  A barn owner should be encouraged by the builder to orient the building to the natural wind direction.  Use vented soffits and cupolas, and if your customer demands a heated building, be sure there is some kind of mechanical air exchange to get the old stale dusty air out and the clean healthy cool air in. 

Horses are grazers

Horses evolved on the plains as grazers, but humans create problems for them by keeping them in pastures and stalls.  Originally, the earth gave a horse’s feet and legs a soft cushioned base on which to roam and run.  Kept in confinement and made to stand for long periods on a hard surface, horses can get stocked up (leg swelling), develop hoof problems, and become lame.

Another problem developed from a domestication standpoint. When horses started eating near manure, they developed intestinal parasites.  Controlling parasites is essential for the health of the horse individually, as well as horses as a species.  Worms are incredibly adaptive; new products and parasite remedies must continually be developed because they become ineffective over time.

Being a grazing animal, a horse naturally eats with his head down. His nose naturally drains any dust or other particulate matter.  Hanging hay bags and hay bins that elevate the horse’s head do not allow for natural drainage. All that dust is able to go right up his long nose and into his lungs. What this means for the horse is breathing problems, like heaves.
In humans, these breathing difficulties are known as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or asthma. And as in humans, in horses that’s serious trouble.

Another cause for concern is chaff getting into the horse’s eyes.  There are many studies regarding the best way to feed.  For every study that you can find in favor of feeding on the ground, you will find another in favor of using bins or racks.  When in doubt, go natural.

What’s on the menu?

Being a grazing animal and being herbivorous (plant-eating) go hand in hand, so these two traits create some of the same design considerations.

Herbivores need small amounts of feed more often. Three squares a day works well for the cowboy, but his horse would prefer to eat a little bit all day long.  And, like the cowboy, the horse needs to wash down his meals — in this case, the bulky diet of hay and grass — with a continuous supply of fresh water.

Deep in horses’ genetic memory is being aware that they are prey — the ones that get eaten. This means a horse’s first reaction to being startled, surprised or cornered is to leave as fast as possible, by whatever means possible.
It makes sense, then, that prey animals do not like surprises. They are flighty and reactive; their first reaction is to run away.  When cornered, or when they feel threatened, horses will defend themselves by kicking or rearing.

Horse stalls should be made to accept an angry or scared kick.  Wood is better for this than concrete or masonry.  Wood will flex and give; it may break, but it is more easily replaced than a horse.  Their hooves are designed to strike other animals – not hard objects.

There is no way to design a building that will alleviate these traits in horses. But builders and barn owners can build to make the horses and the humans who care for them as safe as possible.

Oops: Horses can be clumsy

As beautiful and graceful as they appear in the open spaces, in confinement horses can be clumsy. Think of a horse inside a building as an accident looking for a way to happen.

Eliminate all sharp edges; horses will find them and hurt themselves.

Provide non-slip stall flooring surfaces that are not too smooth, and sturdy but forgiving walls that withstand horses’ rambunctious, flighty moments.

Design aisles wide enough for the handler and the horse to walk safely together. Still, even a wide aisle can be an obstacle course for the horse if there are buckets, wheelbarrows and other items strewn around.

Provide adequate storage to keep tack and other commonly used tools and equipment out of the way.

A few final thoughts
Horses are much less fussy about their surroundings than their owners are. In fact, horses’ needs are quite simple.
They need enough space for their size; good ventilation and fresh air for their arctic heredity; plenty of company because of their social nature; soft under-footing that mimics the plains where they originally roamed, and plenty of food and fresh water served in a way that allows them to eat head-down, as nature designed them to do.
And if the people who care for them want their own space nearby to relax, or sit in an office area and order supplies, even throw a party for their two-footed friends, that’s OK with the horses. HBB

Author Tami Newman, an experienced and dedicated horse owner,  is the  marketing coordinator for Wick Buildings in Mazomanie, Wis. She can be contacted at Tami.Newman@wick-mail.com.

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