Choosing the best configuration of shelter in your horse’s pasture is one of the most important aspects of horse management. Most horses seek shelter at some point during the day, whether from cold and precipitation or from insects and heat.

During the winter, it’s important to consider what type of shelter your horse needs to stay warm in inclement weather. In summer months, correctly designed shelters can provide shade and refuge from bugs and rain.

A common option for providing shelter to horses is a run-in shed, a type of freestanding structure that allows horses to freely enter and exit. Sheds should be well-ventilated, dry, and large enough to accommodate the number of horses in the pasture.

However, some horse owners may prefer to keep their horse housed within an individual stall in a barn. Whichever form of housing you choose, follow the tips in this guide ensure it meets your horse’s needs effectively.

Why Horses Need Shelter

Providing adequate shelter for horses is fundamental to their health, comfort, and well-being. In extreme cold temperatures, horses need to burn calories to help them maintain a stable body temperature.

Management practices, such as feeding schedule and the provision of suitable shelter, play a significant role in how well horses can adapt to sustained cold temperatures.

However, a poorly designed shelter can deter horses from seeking refuge precisely when they need it the most. Knowing the optimal setup for equine shelters is important to keep horses comfortable and dry through inclement weather.

Adapting to Cold Temperatures

Horses are very good at adapting to cold temperatures, a trait that has enabled them to thrive in various climates around the world. Most horses are comfortable at temperatures between 59° to 18°F (-8° to – 15°C). When the air is dry and not windy, horses may tolerate temperatures as low as 0°F (-18°C).

However, with access to appropriate shelter, horses can tolerate temperatures as low as -40°F (-40°C). [1] This makes it possible for many horses to live outside year-round, even in climates with harsh winters.

Maintaining Body Temperature

Several horse-specific and environmental factors influence the amount of energy a horse requires to sustain its normal body temperature in cold weather.

Horse characteristics that impact their ability to stay warm include:

In addition to ambient temperature, weather conditions that can impact your horse’s body temperature and comfort include:

  • Humidity
  • Precipitation
  • Wind
  • Exposure to sunlight

Keep these factors in mind when designing shelter for your horse. Depending on your horse’s status and your geographic region, you may need to make changes to your housing and management.

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Types of Shelters

The most common shelter options for horses are run-in sheds in paddocks or pastures or individual stalls in a barn.

Horses do best when grazing and socializing freely, so it is important to maximize turnout and minimize the length of time a horse spends in a stall during the day.

Shelters placed in paddocks offer an alternative to individual housing in stalls, and provide easy access to protection from the elements.

Sheds for Horses

Sheds in pastures and paddocks provide an easy-to-access reprieve from inclement weather such as rain, snow, and wind. Run-in sheds are typically designed with three walls and an open front to allow free entry and exit.

When constructing or selecting a shelter, consider factors such as durability of materia, safety, and ease of maintenance. Horse sheds are often constructed of wood or metal, or a combination of materials.

Metal roofs are a sturdy option, but may be noisy during hard rainstorms. Insulate the roof to dampen the noise, which can ensure spooky or sensitive horses access the shed when they need it most during heavy rainfall. [3]

Regular inspection and maintenance are also important to keep the shelter safe and functional throughout the year.

Shed Size

Selecting the correct size and position of your shed can increase its usefulness in sheltering horses from the elements.

The size of your shed should be determined based on the number of horses using it, as well as the size of those horses. Follow these general guidelines when determining shelter dimensions: [2][3]

  • Height of Opening: At least 10 feet (3 meters) high
  • Depth of Shed: At least 20 feet (6 meters) deep
  • Total Area: 100 square feet (9.2 square meters) per young horse and 120 – 150 square feet (11 – 14 square meters) per mature horse

This size allotment is adequate for horses that get along well together. A larger shelter may be needed if herd dynamics are a known concern. [1]

Shed Location and Position

Ensure the shelter is situated in a well-drained area to prevent muddy conditions and flooding. If the intended area for your shed is low-lying, consider building it up with gravel to improve drainage.

Excessive mud can deter horses from using a shelter and high moisture content in the surrounding footing may cause hoof issues in horses. Proper mud management is important to keep horses safe when accessing shelter.

Orient the shelter to offer maximum protection against prevailing weather patterns. Ideally, the open side of sheds should be positioned away from prevailing winds to provide a wind break. Placing the shed facing the direction of the winter sun may provide added warmth in cold temperatures. [2]

When deciding where to locate your shelter, also consider important factors such as: [3]

  • Location Relative to Other Buildings: Close proximity will make it easier to run electricity or water lines to the shelter
  • Traffic Lanes Around the Shelter: This may help horses lower in the hierarchy to access the shelter
  • Location Relative to Feeding Erea: Close proximity to their hay will promote hay intake while seeking comfort from the shelter
  • Ability to Observe Horses: orient the opening to allow observation of the horse’s behaviour inside the shelter
  • Ease of Manure Cleaning: consider the ability to access the shelter with the equipment you are using for manure cleaning
  • Potential for Snow Buildup: the side facing prevailing winds will have the most buildup of snow

Additional Design Considerations

The roof of the shelter should slope away from the entrance to prevent water accumulation in places where horses enter and exit. This will also prevent mud from forming in high-traffic areas.

In colder regions, shelters are often designed with smaller openings to keep horses protected from weather conditions. In such cases, it is recommended to provide multiple entry and exit points. Research shows that horses use shelters more often when they have two entrances. [4]

Individual Stalls for Horses

Stall confinement is one of the most common ways to protect horses from the elements. Indoor housing in a barn offers a controlled environment, protecting horses from adverse weather conditions and potentially reducing injury risk.

However, keeping horses in stalls requires careful management to optimize equine welfare. This includes constructing well-designed stalls, providing ample turnout time, allowing for natural behaviors like grazing and socializing, and ensuring constant access to hay and water.

Barns with stalls may be constructed of wood, metal, concrete, or a combination of building materials. The inside of stalls should be free of projections or loose material that horses may injure themselves on. [2]

Barn ceilings should be built to a minimum height of 8 feet to support proper air circulation and prevent horses from striking their head on the ceiling. [5]

Stall Size

The ideal size of a stall depends on the horse’s size, amount of time they spend in their stall and activity level of the horse. In general, a stall should be at least 1.5 times the length of the horse that occupies it. [5]

Stalls for an average 500 kg (1100 lb) horse are typically designed to be 12 x 12 feet (3.6 x 3.6 meters) in area. [5] Smaller stalls that are 10 x 10 feet (3 x 3 meters) may be appropriate for smaller horse breeds or ponies.

Some horses need more space and larger stalls, including: [2][5]

  • Draft Horses: Up to 14 x 14 feet (4.2 x 4.2 meters)
  • Stallions: Up to 14 x 14 feet (4.2 x 4.2 meters)
  • Mares and Foals: At least 12 x 16 feet (3.6 x 4.9 meters)

Stall Partitions

Partition between stalls should be at least 8 feet tall to prevent horses from escaping or getting their legs over the top of the stall while kicking or rearing. [5]

Stalls should designed so that horses can see and smell each other. This helps to facilitate social behavior and reduces the risk of stereotypies, including cribbing and weaving.

To facilitate this, stalls are usually made of solid material only to a height of around 4 – 5 feet (1.2 – 1.5 meters). The top half of the stall partition is usually constructed with metal bars, mesh, or larger spaces between wooden boards to allow contact with horses in neighboring stalls. [2]

This design also improves ventilation, potentially reducing the risk of respiratory issues, such as heaves.

Stall Doors

Similar to partitions, doors should be constructed to a minimum height of eight feet. Doors should swing outward, rather than into the stall, making it easier for horses to enter and exit. [2][5]

Ensure there is less than three inches of clearance under doors to prevent horses from getting their feet stuck. [5]

Doors for horse stalls come in many different design options. Dutch doors and sliding doors are two of the most common types of doors used in horse facilities.

An interior mesh door or stall guard will facilitate leaving the door open to improve circulation or to allow the horse to stick his head over the opening. [5]

Stall Windows

Windows in horse barns provide natural light and improve ventilation. If possible, stalls should be designed with at least one window opening to the outside of the bar.

Windows should be at least 4 square feet (0.4 square meters) in size, and should be positioned at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the floor. Glass windows should guarded by metal bars to prevent injury from breakage. As an alternative, high impact plastic can be used. [2]

Horse Behavior in Shelters

Providing shelters in pastures allow horses to freely seek refuge when they feel uncomfortable in inclement weather. This is an ideal way to meet a horse’s behavioral needs for grazing and freedom of movement, while also keeping them safe in adverse conditions.

Stall confinement, on the other hand, requires horses to be sheltered for specified periods as determined by their human handlers. This forced confinement can result in abnormal behavior and stress, potentially prompting the development of stereotypic behaviors if horses do not get adequate turnout time.

Shelter Seeking in the Field

When turned out to pasture, research shows that horses may spend as little as 10% of their time in provided shelters. [6] However, horses have been shown to use shelter more often in cold weather (< 7.1°C / 45°F) and in hot weather (>25.2 C / 77 F). [7]

Horses also tend to use their shelters more often on days when it is rainy, snowy or windy. [6][7][8]

Although blanketing may provide protection from wind and precipitation, blanketed horses still opt to use shelters in bad weather. [9] For this reason, it is a good idea to provide shelter options even if your horses are blanketed.

Besides providing protection from weather, sheds also provide protecting from biting insects that target horses and can transmit diseases. [10] Even when temperatures are within comfortable ranges, horses may still use shelters to avoid insects. [11][12]

Not all equids share the same shelter seeking behaviors. When compared to horses, donkeys seek shelter more often in cold and windy conditions, as well as during wet weather. Conversely, horses tended to seek shelter more often than donkeys in warm whether and when insects are bothersome. [11]

Downsides of Stall Confinement

Stall confinement is a very common method of providing shelter, especially for elite competition horses, to minimize the risk of injury. However, being housed in a stall does not allow as much voluntary movement or social contact as does housing in a field with other horses.

This can be a difficult adjustment for horses used to being housed outdoors who prefer to spend their time grazing freely and interacting with other horses. Prolonged stall confinement can impact their natural behaviours and lead to coping behaviours known as stereotypies.

Examples of stereotypies observed in stalled horses include: [18]

The best way to reduce the risk of stereotypies in stalled horses is to give them adequate turnout time and provide free-choice forage to ensure they don’t go long periods between meals.

Performance Horses

At the beginning of training programs, horses that are stalled rather than turned out to pasture may take longer to habituate to new activities. [13] Research in performance horses shows that stall confinement may result in more stress and worse performance. [14]

Horses kept in stalls may have more difficulty adapting to training. Giving your performance horse a minimum of two hours of turnout per day may reduce restless behaviors. [15]

Rest Behaviors

Stalled horses also exhibit differences in rest behaviorscompared to horses that live outdoors. Stall confinement may result in more time spent lying down and sleeping, while at the same time increasing aberrant and restless activities during wakeful periods. [16]

Research also shows that weanlings who are weaned in stalls spent more time lying down and less time moving around than those weaned in groups in paddocks. [17]

The increase in time spent lying and sleeping may be advantageous for horses that need rest, but may not be desirable for the average horse that benefits from ample daily activity. Adequate turnout also supports bone development, growth, and joint health in young horses.

Shelter Considerations

No matter what type of housing or shelter you choose for your horse, keep these important considerations in mind.

Water

All horses should have free-choice access to water in their environment at all times. In stalls, water is commonly supplied in buckets or by automatic waterers. In pastures and paddocks, water is commonly supplied in larger troughs, with or without an automatic water dispenser.

If your horse is housed outside, place water sources away from the shelter to avoid drenching the shelter area as well as competition for water sources in confined spaces. [2]

Horses consume more water in cold weather when it’s provided at room temperature rather than providing cold, icy water. [19] Consider using a water trough heater in the wintertime.

In stalls, horses prefer to drink from buckets rather than bowls with pressure or float valves. [20] Even the color of the bucket can affect water intake, as horses have been shown to prefer light-colored buckets. [21]

Whether in a stall or a paddock, it’s important to regularly clean water sources and inspect equipment for leaks or breaks that may interfere with your horse’s water supply or cause drenching of bedding and footing.

Feeders

Feeder placement is an important consideration in any horse facility. Placing feeders at the back of shelters protects horses and the feed from adverse weather conditions.

However, horses may exhibit more food aggression when feed is provided in an enclosed location. [2] For this reason, horse owners will commonly feed hay and grain outside of shelters so that horses have more room to avoid altercations.

In stalls, feeders are commonly located at the front of the stall to facilitate ease of access.

Cleaning Schedule

Regular cleaning of stalls and sheds is recommended to reduce the risk of infectious diseases, support hoof health and prevent respiratory issues associated with excess ammonia accumulation from urine.

Stalls should be cleaned at least once daily, especially for horses that are confined to their stall for the majority of the day.

Sheds do not require cleaning as frequently, but may benefit from weekly or monthly cleaning, depending on the frequency of use and number of horses.

Summary

  • Manmade structures such as shelters in paddocks or individual stalls in a barn can help to protect horses from inclement weather.
  • Horses make good use of run-in sheds in pastures to protect themselves from wind, precipitation, and insects.
  • Run-in sheds with three closed sides should be positioned optimally within in a paddock to encourage their use. The design of the shed should minimize mud accumulation, allow movement around the shed, and take into account location relative to feed and other buildings.
  • Stalls allow for better control of your horse’s use of a shelter, but come at the expense of freedom of movement and socialization.
  • Long-term stall confinement can cause horses to develop undesirable behaviours, such as weaving or cribbing
  • In all cases, ensure your horse has access to forage and water, and keep the area clean to support their health and wellbeing.

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References

  1. Clanton, C. and M. Hathaway. Caring for your horse in the winter. University of Minnesota Extension. 2022.
  2. Lewis, L.D. Chapter 9: General Horse Management Practices. Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and care. 1995.
  3. Guthrie, T. Providing shelter for your horse in winter months. Michigan State University Extension. 2011.
  4. Christensen, J.W., et. al. The effect of shelter design on shelter use by Icelandic horses in the winter period. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2018.
  5. Wheeler, E. and J.S. Zajaczkowski. Horse Stall Design. Penn State Extension. 2016.
  6. Heleski, C.R. and I. Murtazashvili Daytime shelter-seeking behavior in domestic horses. 2010.
  7. Snokes, M.G., et. al. Behavior of horses on pasture in relation to weather and shelter—A field study in a temperate climate. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2015.
  8. Jørgensen, G.H.M, et. al. Preference for shelter and additional heat in horses exposed to Nordic winter conditions. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2015.
  9. Jørgensen, G.H.M, et. al. The effect of blankets on horse behaviour and preference for shelter in Nordic winter conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2019.
  10. Christensen, J.W., et. al. Insect-repelling behaviour in horses in relation to insect prevalence and access to shelters. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2022.
  11. Proops, L., et. al. Shelter-seeking behavior of donkeys and horses in a temperate climate. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2019.
  12. Christensen, J.W., et. al. Shelter use by horses during summer in relation to weather conditions and horsefly (Tabanidae) prevalence. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2022.
  13. Rivera, E., et. al. Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to initial training: the comparison between pastured versus stalled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2002.
  14. Werhahn, H., et. al. Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls (II): Effects of Free Exercise on the Behavior in the Stable, the Behavior during Training, and the Degree of Stress. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2012.
  15. Werhahn, H., et. al. Temporary Turnout for Free Exercise in Groups: Effects on the Behavior of Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2011.
  16. Kjellberg, L., et. al. Horses’ resting behaviour in shelters of varying size compared with single boxes. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2022.
  17. Heleski, C.R., et. al. Influence of housing on weanling horse behavior and subsequent welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2002.
  18. Broom, D.M. et al. Stereotypies in horses: their relevance to welfare and causation. Equine Vet Educ. 1993.
  19. Kristula, M.A. and McDonnell, S.M. Drinking Water Temperature Affects Consumption of Water During Cold Weather in Ponies. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 1994.
  20. Nyman, S. and Dahlborn, K. Effect of water supply method and flow rate on drinking behavior and fluid balance in horses. Physiol & Behav. 2001.
  21. Yildirim, F. and A. Yildiz. Water bucket colour preferences in horses. Australia Journal of Veterinary Sciences. 2020.