What is a horse, really? I don’t mean to find an answer to a description of what a horse looks like, I mean, we all know that it has four legs, a head, mane and tail. But think again. What makes a horse, a horse? What does a horse do? Let’s look at a horse in a natural environment: Were you aware that a horse is a grazing animal, spending roughly about 16 hours a day browsing for food? Or did you know that horses are highly social animals, living their whole life in dynamic herds? Have you thought about the amount of time a wild horse spends moving around?
“What do individual boxes offer? Social isolation, no space to roam around and limited feed supply.”
Keep those thoughts in mind. Now let’s imagine the average horse stable. What do you see? Most likely, individual boxes. What do they offer? Social isolation, no space to roam around and limited feed supply. Now tell me, how come that modern horse owners still believe this is a good solution? Yes, I believe horse owners have the best intentions at heart, spending hours a week to muck out stables, cleaning water buckets and spending large amounts of money on the latest concentrates. However, I do not think that this way of horse keeping is ideal in terms of horse health and welfare or human labour and ergonomics.
Luckily, I am not alone in this. Innovative designs for more natural ways of horse keeping are increasing in popularity throughout Europe. Last week the housing course arranged an excursion to one of these stables making use of a design that is adapted specifically towards the horse’s needs. This one was a so called ‘active stable’. I must admit, I have seen and experienced many different horse stables in my life, but never was I as much impressed as with this one.
The double feed station
Marma Torp is a small scale horse facility that houses Icelandic horses exclusively. Their philosophy is that loose-housing of horses fulfils both the physical and psychological needs in a better way compared to stabled housing. Besides, they are convinced that a modern active stable is not advantageous for the horses only, the people benefit as well. For example this way of horse keeping demands relatively little labour and seems not more expensive than traditional housing in the long run.
The chip on the neck collar and the access door to the feed
All the horses wear a collar which includes a chip that gives them access to the feed stations. In this way, the horse chooses itself when it would like to eat, and how often. Although the total amount is managed by the people through a computer system. When the horse enters the feeding station the doors behind the horse close, so that no other horse can enter at the same time. When the doors are closed the feed will become available, as the partial door towards the feed is lowered. After a set time the door towards the feed rises again, meaning feeding time is finished. The horse leaves the feeding station and can come back at a later time. In this way the horse is able to eat small portions of roughage throughout the day, without any human labour involved. The bales of hay are moved into the feed station mechanically.
Unlimited straw provision and the walk-in stable in the back
The area where the horses walk around freely consists of a gravel paddock, a small forestry area and grassland. Besides the feed station, a heatable water tub, a wind shelter, unlimited straw provision and a spacious group stable are provided. The whole area is divided into two, to provide a separate mare and gelding herd. The current facility is able to house up to 14 Icelandic horses. We had a critical look at the body condition of the horses. Icelandic horses have a reputation to put on weight easily, but these were all in excellent condition. Impressive, but not surprising, if you consider their smart management. The hay quality is analysed, individual eating time per horse measured and those data together provide the formula for how many hours a day each horse may spend in the feed station.
One of the Icelandic mares coming to greet us
It was really inspiring to listen to and talk with the owners of the place. They are very enthusiastic about the system, even though they had to make several changes from the start. Is it perfect? Almost, if you ask me. For example you could see that some cheeky horses managed to steal from another’s hay. Also, I do think there are still some challenges left when looking at sustainability aspects. Could the manure be collected from the forest area to prevent from phosphorus leaking and be of use elsewhere? What is the energy source behind the feed stations, could solar panels be placed on the roof?
These days Sweden counts about thirty active stables. I don’t want to say that this system will be the solution for everyone, but I think it is a beautiful example of alternative horse housing. It would already be a great step forward to rethink the way we choose to house our horses. Why not look at the opportunities for small changes in our current housing systems towards a more horse-friendly environment as a start. To me, in ‘horseworld’ many things seem to happen because ‘it has alwas been done like this’. Let’s be innovative instead and learn more from each other’s experiences.
Any questions? Comments? Opinions perhaps? Feel free to reply below.