Most horses are stabled in stalls at least some of the time during their lives, depending on geographic location, barn, pasture or turnout arrangements, or activity level. Since horses spend a lot of time in a stall, it’s your responsibility as owner to make sure your horse’s stall is as safe as possible.
First, let’s start at the stall door. Ideally the door should be solid, but many horse owners use stall guards during the hot summer or at horse shows to allow for more airflow. While web stall guards may be appropriate for some horses, if your horse tends to paw, he could get a foot caught and panic. In situations like these, you need to know your horse and his possible habits. If the barn is going to be closed-up for the night with no one around, a solid door is certainly best. If your horse is prone to grabbing at other horses, or even people, who walk by, consider a barred top door to confine your horse and protect others. Most horses do just fine with a Dutch door and enjoy the freedom to look around.
Stall doorways should be at least 4 feet wide to allow for safe passage of your horse in-and-out of the stall, and the ceiling should ideally be a minimum of 8 feet high. For the average size horse, a minimum of 10’ x 10’ for a stall is acceptable, but 12’ x 12’ is the standard and much better for the horse.
Now, think about the latch for the stall door. How does it latch onto the wall? Is there a “handle” for the horse to grab? If you have a clever horse, a simple latch closure may not be enough to keep him in his stall. A loose horse can get in plenty of trouble in a very short time, especially if you’re at a strange facility at a horse show. Some horses don’t just stop with escaping their own stalls but will walk down the aisle and release other horses, too. If there is a “handle” for your horse to grab, you may need a couple of snaps to cover the latch to keep him secure. Avoid the cute horseshoe-incorporated latches. Horses can, and have, broken their jaws by getting them caught in the horseshoes. Depending on the severity, a broken jaw can mean down time for a riding horse or, in some instances, can be fatal if the pain prevents the horse from eating. If you suspect your horse has broken his jaw, call your veterinarian for an evaluation.
Make sure you have a way to hang a halter and lead rope convenient to the stall door, but far enough away that your horse can’t grab the items. You want these items readily available if you must evacuate the barn on short notice or catch a loose horse.
Remember to do a careful walk through and inspect the stall periodically. While you may only need to do this once a month at your “home barn,” you should do this every time your horse goes into a stall at a new facility. Look for nails that stick out, loose boards or partitions, any place your horse could potentially get his foot stuck, and how the feed and water buckets are hung. At a show facility, look for holes and any debris left in the stall that could be dangerous.
Consider the footing in the stall. Your horse will have bedding in his stall, but what is under the bedding? Is the floor dirt, cement or asphalt? A horse can wear holes in dirt, making the floor uneven; uncovered cement is quite slippery, and asphalt is extremely hard on a horse’s legs, so you’ll want to look at putting in stall mats to make the stall safer and provide a cushion. If you have a wood floor, you’ll need to pick up the stall mats and check for any rotted boards on a regular basis.
Whenever possible, you’ll want to choose bedding that best suits your horse. Some horses do best with straw, others with shavings. Sawdust may be too dusty for a senior horse, but fine for younger horses who aren’t inside as much. However, if your horse is boarded, the facility may dictate the type of bedding you’re able to use. Some farms only use straw, but others won’t allow it due to the difficulties it poses for cleaning stalls. Make sure to avoid any shavings with black walnut! Bedding that contains 20% or more black walnut shavings will cause toxicity in as little as 10-12 hours after oral or skin contact. Black walnut shavings can be identified by its dark color versus regular shavings that are a light tan color. Signs of toxicity include reluctance to move, shifting weight from limb to limb, warm hooves, leg edema and an increased digital pulse. If you suspect your horse has black walnut shaving toxicity, remove him from the stall and call your veterinarian immediately.
A stall at a show, fairgrounds or campground could also carry some microscopic health hazards. Outdoor stalls at camps are somewhat safer due to the sun beating down on pathogens. Indoor stalls hold higher risks. If possible, spray the stall your horse will occupy with a safe disinfectant spray ahead of time. Let it sit for a minimum of 10 minutes, though an hour is preferable to allow fumes to escape. If there is debris on the walls, wipe it off before you apply the disinfectant, as organic material can interfere with the agents. Do not attempt to reuse someone else’s bedding. If bedding is left in the stall, remove it before putting you horse in to eliminate the potential threat if any pathogens were present.
Stall walls or dividers can also depend on your horse. If he’s stabled next to his best friend, then a lower wall (with or without bars at the top) may be fine. This will allow for interactions and better airflow. If the barn tends to have a rotating population, you are better off with higher, solid walls (perhaps with a barred window in between to reduce the feeling of isolation). Make sure that the walls are sturdy enough to stand up to angry kicks.
Miniature horses, small ponies and many donkeys benefit from having a lower stall wall or door at the front. This way they can look out and be involved with, or amused at, everything going on in the barn. This reduces boredom and the bad habits that come from boredom. Some stables cut out holes in tall doors to allow minis to look out, or you could also provide a safe “step up,” such as a solid cement block, so your height challenged equine can look out.
Hay racks and feeders can help minimize hay waste, but they should be stationed to prevent a horse getting caught on one if he spooks or is wild in his stall. Some horses do better with hay nets, but make sure to hang it high enough or use a slow feed hay net with small holes, so they don’t get their hooves caught if they paw at the ground.
If using feed or water buckets, they should be safely constructed and easy to remove and clean thoroughly. Check that there are no sharp edges and be aware of how the buckets are fastened to the wall. An open hook could catch an eye. Replace old rubber buckets and feed tubs that are cracked or chewed up. If your stall has automatic waterers, make sure to flush the water out periodically to clean any debris at the bottom and ensure it’s filling properly.
If your horse is lucky, he has a window to the outside. This can help with ventilation in the stall plus provide some entertainment. Many horse owners simply go with a Dutch door set-up and open the top during good weather and shut them in inclement weather. Sometimes the wall panel will have a window with bars on it to allow airflow and the horse to see out but keeps the horse’s head in the stall. Other alternatives include a sliding window set-up or using opaque corrugated siding in place of a window for extra light.
It is very important that you know how your horse will handle things when planning his stall set-up and location. A nervous horse is best off at the end of a barn aisle where there is less traffic. If your horse shows aggression over his feed, you might want to set the stall up so his grain can be poured in without you needing to enter the stall. While there are basics for safe stalls, customize your arrangement to suit your horse.