Why does this riding stable give me the creeps?
September 24, 2008 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Am I right to have a bad feeling about the horseback riding stable where I'm taking lessons?

I signed up for horseback riding lessons through the park district, held at a local stable. I don't have much experience with horses, other than a few tourist trail rides. I've had a few lessons, but the stable depresses me. I realize that it's a stable, but it seems dark, cramped, and not terribly clean (piles of horse dung in the walkways, cobwebs all over the stalls).

Most of the horses have box stalls, but these stalls only open to an interior walkway, not to the outside. A few horses are in stalls too small for them to turn around in. There is no outside paddock area; the horses don't get to run around outside, although some of them are turned out in the inside ring at night.

The people who run the stable seem to be nice, caring people. The horses don't look abused or neglected. We're learning how to brush and care for the horses, not just how to ride them. Am I being too sensitive? Do horses not need to go outside regularly? (Full disclosure: I have two indoor cats and would never think of letting them roam around outside, so call me a hypocrite if you want.)

If this stable situation is unacceptable, what should I do?
posted by Joleta to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If they're ridden and turned out in the ring often, horses can do okay in a stall as their primary residence. The horses in stalls too small for them to turn around in seems like a problem, though. Are the piles of manure sitting there for extended periods or is it just there after mucking the stalls out? Cobwebs are common in stables...I wouldn't worry about that.

Overall, it seems a little unfortunate, but not what I would all abuse or neglect.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:09 PM on September 24, 2008

from stablewise.com

"Typically, a twelve-foot by twelve-foot stall is considered adequate for all horses. The actual dimensions are more like 11’ 6" by 11’ 6" because of standard lumber lengths. If the stall is much smaller than this, there is not much room for them to turn around or just get comfortable. Of course, if you are remodeling an existing facility that was originally built with smaller stalls, then your choices are somewhat limited. Maybe more turnout time is a good compromise."

Also, there is this link from horsekeeping.com

Also, there is firsthorse.com's take on it.

And Google Answers.

After reading these answers, it seems to me that your concerns are well-founded and need to be addressed.

Disclaimer, I don't know much about horses. I just googled 'horse stall size.'
posted by 4ster at 9:14 PM on September 24, 2008

Animals like cats and horses have the relationship with humans that they have because they are able to adapt to it and thrive. There is a reason no one rides zebras on the weekends: they would never put up with it.

Are horses cowed into submission?

Are your cats just inured by the length of their imprisonment?

Maybe the answer to both is yes but it's also quite possible that these species find a relationship with humans an equivalent or even superior existence to being turned loose in the wild.

It's easy to image life in the wild as a fun, free romp through sunny meadows. But in reality most animals in the wild live a pretty brutal, short, largely starved existence. I think when you feel bad about these horses you may be comparing their existence to a bit of a fantasy.
posted by scarabic at 9:30 PM on September 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

How fresh is the manure you're talking about? Horses defecate a whole lot. If it's clean, rounded, sharp-edged pieces of manure it's probably less than an hour old. If it's getting kind of fuzzy looking and the individual pieces are losing shape it's probably old enough someone should have gotten a pitchfork and taken care of it.*

Cobwebs are normal. Spiders love barns, as far as I've ever been able to tell - they're everywhere eating flies. Dark is normal. I would be extremely weirded out if a barn were bright. Perhaps breeding farms have bright barns, but in my experience barns are dark, dusty (because of hay and sawdust) and spiders are everywhere.

Some horses are put in smaller stalls as a stopgap measure because they will try to pull shenanigans in larger ones. Depending on how much exercise they get and if those are the horses turned out in the ring at night it's possible that they are in those stalls for a reason.

Box stalls with doors to the outside can be a problem for security. Horse thieves still exist, oddly enough. The box stalls only opening into the barn might be a feature for this reason.

Are their hooves clean? Are their stalls cleaned reguarly? Are there pools of urine, which would be a bad sign? Are the horses' eyes bright, and their coats bright? Do they have scars where the tack rubs? Do their hooves look clean and well-trimmed, even if they don't have shoes? Can you see if the horses are chewing their stalls? Do they have balls or rings or anything to play with attached to their stalls?

If the horses are clean, unafraid of people, and have good feet, they are probably doing okay, depending on how much exercise they get. It is good to be concerned about the care of animals, though. Had you asked if the horses in the small stalls are there for a reason?

*if you have horses, you can get very sadly precise about how old manure is on the ground from having to spend 90% of your time hauling the stuff about. Horses poo a lot.
posted by winna at 9:54 PM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't really say it's a problem, but I can only really speak from experience at one barn where a few family members have both taught lessons and rode at for as long as I can remember. I used to hang around there a lot when I was younger, and most of the barns were pretty close to what you described, especially the oldest, main barn. I don't remember the stalls being very small, though. But it was definitely a dark, stinky place. Not that it was dirty; the stalls were mucked pretty regularly. Horses do poop a lot though, so it's kinda hard to keep up with them I'd imagine. Especially when you've got a whole lot of horses. I don't remember any horses being kept outside when they weren't being ridden, not for any extended amounts of time anyway, but the horses and the humans both seemed pretty happy with the way things were run.
posted by Venadium at 10:36 PM on September 24, 2008

Best answer: Horses are herd animals, so standing alone in stalls -- not to mention being ridden -- is not natural to them, but what you describe generally is not outside the bounds of standard riding stable practice. Most stalls are inward facing. Many horses get little exercise other than when they are ridden. Many do not see the outside world for much of their lives. Horse shit and piss is everywhere, no matter how hard you try (though the stalls must be cleaned regularly). Generally, I don't think the SPCA is going to do much if you call them. But if it's the case that "A few horses are in stalls [literally] too small for them to turn around in" you might be able to get something done.

Contact nearby experts in this area. For you, I suppose you want to contact one or more of the organizations listed here. Ask them whether any action is warranted. Describe things as exactly as possible. Give the protection organization the exact name and address of the stable (and maybe the names of the owners) and ask whether they know anything about this stable in particular. They may have been there already.

But be careful not to go about this clumsily. The best result would be that outside experts assure you that the horses are properly managed. The next best result would be that the owners (who probably love and respect horses) are simply persuaded to improve things if needed. The worst result would be harm and embarrass for people who might be doing what they can for their horses, especially if any fines took money away from potential improvement efforts. Also, if your name is dragged into any investigation, you probably won't want to be riding there anymore, and neighboring stables might also learn your name, so step lightly and don't punish good intentions.
posted by pracowity at 4:21 AM on September 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. All your answers were great. I'm not as concerned now as I was when I wrote the question. I'll keep my eyes open at the stable and ask about the horses in the small stalls. I appreciate knowing that this situation is not too far out of bounds.
posted by Joleta at 6:00 AM on September 25, 2008

Congratulations on taking the plunge and getting to know horses up close and personal!

Having been one who's mucked stalls for a 20-year period of my life, I can attest that horses seem to love pooping in fresh bedding, just after the stalls have been cleaned, just after having been ridden, just after having seen someone else poop, just after walking out of their stall, just after going back into their stall, just after having been excited about something (eeek! plastic!), just after having the white socks on their back legs cleaned up for show.... but you know, there's still something about a horse that's irresistible once you've been bitten by the horse-bug. When my beasties were pastured outside it was wonderful to not have to clean stalls. (Do you know how many people then expressed the flip-side concern about the horses not being in a barn? - more than I could ever imagine!)

winna gives a very good summary above. Hits all points dead-on. I would add that cobwebs are great in the summer since they catch flies - but, I'd like to see them removed in the off-season. The standing stalls was very common practice back in the day when horses were primary work animals, btw. It's much less common now, but if the horses have a chance to get out daily, it's not abuse. I've seen terrible cases of horse abuse. You can always ask the folks at the barn why these horses are here and others are there - the answer will tell you a lot about their attitude.

If they are taking the time to make sure you know how to care for your steed, that's a very good sign that they are not negligent. Maybe they are more relaxed about it than the show barns I've seen, but there are people's homes that range from fully-stafed white-gloved clean to 3-child messy. Likewise, you get a range of approaches to horse-care.

It's good that you're learning about horse care. You get to know them that way. When you're brushing, cleaning hooves, etc, you're getting a sense of what that horse's mood is on that particular day, what things startle them, what things make them happy - and the horse is gaining a sense of who you are and developing a sense of trust in you. They communicate in many non-verbal ways.

One of the questions you have to answer for yourself, is whether you feel confident in the instructions you're being given. If you don't understand or trust your instructors enough, your experience will be missing something - so find somewhere else if this is the case. And, remember, it's OK to ask questions about general horse care. A good barn will be glad to do that as long as you ask in a way that's not accusatory.

I could go on forever. But, I will spare you. Can you tell I am horseinated?
posted by mightshould at 6:05 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just an additional me-too: my gf owns a boarding barn. It's not big (11 stalls) and we work pretty hard to keep it clean, up-to-date, etc.

With the exception of one stall (originally built for pregnant mares), all our stalls are approx 10'x12'. We have everything from a pony to my gf's Dutch Warmbloods (tall, big guys). Every one has enough room to move around, lay down, etc. We use pelleted bedding that breaks down into sawdust and is a lot easier to keep clean than shavings, straw, etc. Our stalls have thick rubber mats with stone screenings (for drainage) underneath.

We clean the stalls (remove poop and pee) completely once a day, usually just after we put them out for the day/evening (depends on the season). When they come back in, they come to a clean stall that usually poop and pee up for the next 8-12 hours. If they're in during the day (like right now), my gf usually goes out and picks out the poop at least once a day.

Yes, they poop and pee a lot. And some horses are messier than others. One of my gf's horses always poops in the same spot and pees in another spot. Another horse, who we just asked to leave, paced in circles in his stall almost all day and would poop then, in the course of pacing, spread it around/grind it in. That was awesome to clean.

Oh, and we have cobwebs. But we go through and vacuum them out on a regular basis.

Here are the things to look for in a barn:
- Do the horses look healthy? Do they have good attitudes? Are they engaged? There are plenty of guides for assessing the health of a horse

- What kind of turn-out facilities does the barn have? How often and when are horses turned out? We turn out horses overnight in the summer because it's a little cooler and there are fewer bugs to assault them. During spring and fall we'll turn them out for up to 24 hours at a time, as long as it's cool enough during the hottest part and not too cold at night. In winter, we turn them out during the day and bring them in at night. More than a few barns in our turn horses out in the full heat of the day. Horses need to get out, stretch their legs, socialize with other horses, etc. That's pretty important.

- What do they eat, is the feeding schedule regular, is it quality feed? Do they have access to fresh water? Horses are grazers and need to eat almost all day/night. When the horses are in, we feed hay about every 4 hours (except overnight, of course). We feed their grain at the same time every morning and evening. Horses don't like it when you mess with their feeding schedule (colic is a common result). And, of course, the feed needs to be appropriate to the horse.

- What is their turnover? Do owners (and their horses) come and go? Do they stay a long time? Most of our borders have been with us for years. High turnover isn't a good thing in a boarding barn.

- What is the health history? At least two of our horses were in pretty poor condition when they came to us. Both are in excellent condition and have been since staying with us. We've had one mild colic that resolved in a few hours. Otherwise, all our horses are in excellent health (knock on wood).

- Where's the manure pile in relation to the barn? There's a direct correlation between the location and flies in the barn... which, depending on the kind of fly, has a direct impact on the horse's health. Since we moved ours further from the barn, we've had fewer flies. Also, what happens to the old manure? Is it removed? Or does it just continually build up?

I've seen some good barns and some pretty nasty ones. If a barn gives you a bad feeling, go with your gut. From what you described, I wouldn't keep a horse there.
posted by jdfan at 11:41 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would also check out Fugly Horse of the Day.

But keep in mind that far more than half the people who post there are deranged. And Fugly herself is a little..... strident.
posted by fshgrl at 6:24 PM on September 25, 2008

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