Ask A Horse: Barns & Living Arrangements

AMBER: Hi Fiona. I’m wondering if you would be willing to connect with me today about an important subject in horse-keeping: barns and living arrangements. I get to visit so many facilities with wonderful set-ups, and I keep a little notebook of sketches for features I like. However, as beautiful as such places might be for us humans, I would like to know how horses would prefer to live. What do you like in your home?

FIONA: Yes, this is a topic I would enjoy sharing with you. It is good to connect about such questions, because you begin to think as horses. You include us in the conversation when you ask about these matters.

Many of you have wonderful barns that you enjoy. They are beautifully architected and very stylish and fashionable. Not all are comfortable or preferable for horses. Some of you have barns you look on with displeasure, for they seem simple and not fancy to you, and yet horses can enjoy these facilities very much. We like when you are pleased with your surroundings and appreciate the beauty of the place, certainly, but our preferences tend to be very different than yours when it comes to our living situation.

AMBER: I’m not surprised. Some of the most beautiful places I’ve visited do not at all seem horse-friendly, and yet some of those who bemoan their barns have very happy horses.

FIONA: Through which lens are you looking at your barn? That is an important question, and it is the best way to begin this conversation. Many of you look at horse barns through the lens of what you are lacking or craving in your lives: organization, cleanliness, elegance, prestige, prosperity, and order. You fantasize about having a barn with perfect white fencing, rows of stalls with each halter and rug placed just so, gleaming horses in each stall, and tack rooms full of expensive leather. Not a hair is out of place in this vision. We horses find it somewhat appalling. It is an unnatural way to live.

Ask yourself, why do you project this particular fantasy on your life with horses? Is it because you feel out of control in your life? Is it because you believe you would feel safer, more confident, a better rider, more intrepid, more fulfilled if everything was organized to perfection? You bring your greatest fears to your passion of horses because this part of your life is so important to you. Consequently, your fantasy for the perfect barn reflects the areas with which you most struggle: money, order, body image, and so on.

Others think of your dream barns as having the perfect facilities for training to meet your goals, whether that’s a round pen, arenas, cross country courses, or trails. There is nothing wrong with including good areas to partner with horses, but often these fierce desires stem from your own insecurities about your skills rather than genuine need. You believe others succeed because of these facilities, and that nothing will stand in your way if you possess them, too. Some of you subconsciously use this belief as a means of self-sabotage by purchasing facilities that lack what you truly need to succeed, thus giving yourself a permanent reason to fail.

Regardless of the “why” behind these lenses, they are ultimately all about you, and not about your horse.

AMBER: I’ve certainly been guilty of all of this in my fantasizing. It’s so easy to imagine the perfect barn as some of those featured in magazines or architectural sites. I remember spending time picking out the colors for paint and fencing, and drooling over manicured cross country courses. Some of it was just for fun, but there was also the piece you describe, Fiona, of wanting everything to be exactly right for my passion. I thought I was considering horses by having extra-large stalls and good ventilation, but those dreams were very much human versions of horse heaven.

FIONA: There is nothing wrong with wanting to love your barn, and I do not mean to talk you out of that. If it brings you great pleasure to have such fantasies, then by all means have them! However, your question was about what horses would prefer, which is why we began by examining your motives and lenses for creating a barn. When you have identified what is coloring your perspective, you can remove those lenses in order to create a place that meets your needs as well as that of horses. They are not incompatible visions, but they are not as oriented around your convenience or motives as your own fantasies. When you can recognize that, then you can find congruence together.

AMBER: And that is the purpose of my question. So what do horses really want in a barn? How do you prefer to live?

FIONA: We are very social creatures. Much more so than you give us credit for. Our herd is our everything. You may be part of our herd, but you are not the only herd we have – or should have. That part is first and foremost. We forge deep bonds with those around us, and in order to feel truly safe and at ease, we do best in large groups.

AMBER: Is there a size of group that works best for you? Wild herds vary quite a bit.

FIONA: The exact number doesn’t matter precisely. When there is a freedom for more social dynamics and interaction and for more herd members to operate autonomously, we feel more at home and relaxed. Perhaps around 8-12 would be an ideal, in a perfect world. Then some horses may be relaxing while others are on guard and alert, and horses may move from one social group to another without being left out. There is freedom in a larger size like this for us all to be ourselves without making a fuss. Sometimes in smaller herds, we grate on each others nerves if there is not room for expression of all of who we are within such an intimate circle. For example, I like my mare companion very much, but she does not enjoy playing the games that I do. I would prefer a gelding or another sassier friend to engage in mischief.

AMBER: You are very sassy, my dear. I can see how that would be an unmet outlet. I will see what we can do to change this situation.

FIONA: Yes. I am content, but I would be happier with other social dynamics at play in addition to this relationship.

AMBER: What about those who have smaller herds? Not everyone can keep 8-12 horses. Any recommendations for them?

FIONA: A group is always better than just a pair for horses, for security and sociality, so consider three horses or two and another large animal. Other animals are not totally substitutable for horses, but they provide interesting interaction and some of us get along quite well in our makeshift herd. If you can only have two or three horses, ensure at least that they have time together. Mutual grooming, physical touch, and connection are deeply important to us and are ingrained in our DNA and biology as well as our character. An isolated horse is an unhappy horse. There is no perfect solution to increasing happiness in a small herd, but adding stimulation opportunities like games, toys, or chances for us to engage on different levels is helpful for releasing expression that we cannot do within our small group.

AMBER: In other words, the fewer horses you have, the more interaction, stimulation, and engagement you must provide.

FIONA: Yes, because we will not have as much chance to create it on our own within our group. The level and amount of engagement will depend on the horses and the level of aliveness within them, but you will learn which horses need more because they will likely cause trouble if left unattended to create their own stimulation.

AMBER: That’s very interesting and helpful. Thank you. Based on what you’ve shared, I’m assuming that time out together in a field or similar is very important for these herd dynamics?

FIONA: Yes! The most important part of living as a horse is being in a group, in the open, with the closeness and one-mind feeling of a herd. This is what we crave. Only horses who have been deeply damaged or disoriented do not seek this, or shy from it. Healthy horses will choose this type of living every time without hesitation.

The size of the field isn’t that important, but grazing or foraging is. We must have space to roam, to follow the natural rhythms of the planet, but it doesn’t have to be huge acres of fields for us to be happy. We horses like to wander, to follow the breeze and the sun and the shade, and to develop patterns for the day in alignment with our inner compass. Room and freedom to do this as a herd is the key to our basic, fundamental happiness.

AMBER: I understand. It is who you are. Some horses are turned out into separate paddocks instead of as a herd. How does this work for you?

FIONA: Well, any time outside is better than being inside unless the conditions are truly dreadful. However, there is a bond, a connection – the intimacy of life – that is missing when horses are not allowed to be together and touch. It would be as if you were never allowed to date or marry, but only look upon each other from afar. We know that you separate us to protect us from harm, but you do not realize the emptiness inside us that you create. Some horses become so desperate then to connect that their compass for correct behavior and socialization becomes askew. These horses really act out when with other horses as a result, “proving” to you that they are not trustworthy. If they had simply been allowed to meet those intimacy needs from the beginning, there would not have been such a great fuss. The injuries sustained in such escapades, rather from pasture accidents or fights, reflect exactly the wounds of energetic intimacy the horse has already sustained. They are one and the same. To prevent such injury, allow us to connect and maintain intimacy in healthy ways such that we can maintain balance in our relationships.

AMBER: That makes perfect sense. There is another topic that this brings up, which is how to restore such healthy relationships in the best way for horses who have emotional or mental scars. We’ll have to save that one for another day, but I know many people who would prefer to have the herd scenario you describe but feel they cannot without their horses suffering grievous harm.

FIONA: And if the horse is truly damaged to that extent, they are wise to listen to their intuition. However, most horses can be safely restored to a herd simply by being in the company of healthy herd members for a time, and then be released together. We are stronger than you think.

AMBER: How much turnout time is ideal? Do you prefer to come in at night, or stay out, or what?

FIONA: I, personally, choose to be outside all of the time. That is the native way. It is what calls to me. Not all horses feel this way. Some horses enjoy the security of a stall at night, for they feel they can let down and rest. The horses who prefer this are suffering from other safety issues, however, and may not feel the same way if they were to live within a herd again in complete nature. Some horses also enjoy having their meals alone, and the stall gives them this freedom and relaxation, but again the source of this insecurity is usually deeper than the food or lack thereof. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to keep such horses inside for meals or the night; it is just best to listen to your horse and his or her preferences. Most horses, if given the opportunity, will acclimate and come to prefer total turnout. It is good for us to experience stalls especially if you wish to show so that we are not confused or scared by them. However, that is not the preferred way of living for most of us.

If you must limit turnout for some reason, being stalled at night is a reasonable compromise. However, there are some stipulations for this. Many stalls are constructed so that we cannot see the occupants around us. This can be extremely discomforting, because we know horses are present but not where they are, and some horses will never sleep comfortably in this scenario. Choose stalls that allow us to view the horses around us, to engage with them to some degree if that is possible, and we will be much happier and more satisfied for this interaction. Stalls that are literal boxes are very uncomfortable and even terrifying, especially if there are no horses across the aisle to see. Many horses become severely traumatized or mentally ill from such confinement, especially if it is prolonged.

Stalls with runs attached are slightly better, as they allow us to gain an understanding of our environment which is pivotal to our security. However, do not confuse runs with turnout. They merely make being in a stall easier and more bearable, and provide the minimums for interaction as we can see other horses around. They are not a substitute for proper turnout from a horse’s perspective.

Humans like the notion of horses being tucked in for the night, safe and secure in their boxes. However, this is again a projection, which is why we began this conversation with a look at our lenses. Stalled horses give humans peace of mind, because we are locked away from trouble and potential predators in your eyes, and are cozy and secure. For a horse, the experience is just the opposite: we are confined and unable to flee, unable to see or touch other horses to know we’re safe, and forced to try to sleep in an unnatural environment with echoing sounds that confuse our senses. Most stalls are devoid of stimulation except food and water, as well as the ability to move, so our stress level rises and we have no way to pass the time or self-soothe except through vices or worry. All of our instincts tell us that this is not a safe place, so we become conditioned out of our good sense and into misalignment with our inner compass.

The same happens to all of you, in your lives and culture, so we understand why you project this upon us, but it is still unpleasant.

AMBER: How would you prefer to be instead, especially at night? Are there barns or structures we can create that help horses feel more secure and happier?

FIONA: Yes! Smaller, group paddocks at night would be fine. Or large shelters, which still allow us to see and experience the outdoors and elements but offer cover and comfort – that would be wonderful. We also like cozy places to sleep, such as deep sand or fluffy shavings that make wonderful horse nests. We seek these out and enjoy them, so if you provide this in a group setting, it would be ideal for us.

Being inside is a very human concept, and not one that most horses find enjoyable. We would love to share the morning meal with you in your house, perhaps, but to live separate from nature is to live separate from ourselves. We rely even more than you do on the placement of the sun, the smells, the breeze, the rhythms of the earth to guide us and to remind us who we are. Through your wish to bring us inside, into the comforts you perceive that come with being indoors, you forget that we are beings of the Earth. We have no desire to hide from the Earth or separate ourselves. We have every desire to live the fullest expression of our bodies.

Some of you are so confused why horses would choose to be out in a rain storm or the wind. It is for the pleasure of mother nature’s caress. Yes, we get hot or cold or uncomfortable at times, and so we appreciate shade, breezes, and soft places, but we wish to do so while still living of the planet. While still remaining connected to who we really are. This is the essence of living as a horse. If you do your best to honor our innate nature in this way through your facilities and care, you will be joining us in harmony and recognition. When we are allowed to remain connected this way to who we are, we reflect that connection to you, and you enjoy our company as it brings out your own true self.

AMBER: Thank you, Fiona.

Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine guru extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with #askahorse.

2 Replies to “Ask A Horse: Barns & Living Arrangements”

  1. I think my three horses and I communicate pretty well,. Once they know you are listening (and you have to be quiet to do that) they begin to express themselves. Sometimes even talking SLOOOOOLY, as we would a child to be understood. I’ve only heard a horse “talk” a couple of times, and those were in times of injury and stress. The rest is all body language. My mare walked away from me, then raised her tail in the air telling me she wanted her tail scritched. My little mare will walk by slowly, stopping while her butt is right by my hands. My big ottb will back right up to me. It’s all the same request for mutual grooming. I never assume and always ask. Now it’s grown into asking what they want to do, which pasture they want turn out in, where do they need a scritch, or even can I touch them. Stand next to them and how far away is good for them. They all live on 25 acres of trees, creeks, pastures and lots of wildlife. My ottb loves to chase deer, on occasion. I know he misses my arabian, and would love a play partner. My husband has limited the herd to three, so the poor deer do find themselves trying to outrun a race horse on occasion. They have a 50 foot loafing shed for shelter and a lot of shade trees. Yes, I’d love to bring them into the ac in the summer! Always ask about the blanket thang on those bitter cold days. Sometimes it’s no, and sometimes it’s hell yes! Thanks for sharing Fiona’s wisdom. Can you ask her about being ridden? I get the feeling my riding mare isn’t out there grieving because I didn’t ride her that day. She loves interaction, but riding? I’m not sure she’s a fan. Her saddle fits (had it checked a few times and it’s custom for her), I take centered riding to make sure I’m balanced, and we do cowboy dressage, which she seems to enjoy. She isn’t a fan of mindless meandering down a trail, doesn’t particularly care for cow work, and seems to prefer an arena like riding area. I think she may hate going to horsemanship clinics. Especially dislikes the trailer. She’ll load up with a send, but not a fan of the ride. Thanks Deb and the herd

  2. That’s a wonderful set up, Deb! Pretty ideal other than a lack of playmates, but I understand not wanting or being able to take on more horses. I’ve asked Fiona about riding before, and you may find her answer interesting:

    One thing that jumps out from your post is that both of your horses want tail/bum scratches. If it happens with any frequency, asking for that kind of stimulation is an indicator of sacrum issues. Tail rubbing, lifting the tail, walking with the tail held or moving to one side, and pressing the hindquarters against surfaces are all common symptoms, because the nerves to the tail and dock become compromised. It’s like having your foot fall asleep and wake up, which makes the area very itchy and uncomfortable. The muscles around the area get very sore so it also feels great to have rubs and massage around the tail. This may be a reason that your mare is not a fan of riding, as sacral problems usually go hand-in-hand with pelvic or SI problems, and are very uncomfortable for the horse under saddle. It’s often hard for vets to identify this sort of thing, but really good bodyworkers may be able to see it and help you.


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