The squat, dark Spanish-speaking barn worker, pushing a big wheelbarrow full of manure, stopped and looked at our buckskin gelding standing innocently enough in the cavern of a stall. “He dig beeeeeg hole,” he said in broken English. Sure enough, he looked about two hands smaller standing in the stall as we looked in at him from the busy aisleway. I don’t remember the name of the horse now, it was my sisters’ buckskin western pleasure horse, and he was sent to be trained by Steve Wolfe , as he began his career as a top trainer in Western divisions. The barn was a small, old place near Bridle Trails State Park, and as far as I know it’s still there. The stalls were built on the backside of the arena with nothing but woods all around and a freeway to the west and the street across from the park on the east. The barn was full to the gills; even back then when Steve was just starting, he had a long list of clients who wanted horses to be trained. The gelding was obviously bored and unhappy standing in the stall all day long, then being worked for an hour a day. The other 23 hours he filled his time as best he could in the dark and boring stall — digging. First one corner, then another. The dirt and shavings mixed together, so the stall cleaners took it ALL out every day, as they had been told to take out all the dark bedding. So he was standing on practically nothing but dirt.
My sister had saved her money and placed him in training to get a jump start on the horse show season; the gelding was just a three or four year old as I recall and had basically not really been out doing much other than a few halter shows as a yearling. He had been in our fields at home with some other horses, hanging out, going in and out of a shed as he pleased. He had a field with lots to see and do each day. We really didn’t think about what he was thinking, or feeling, at the time, but we knew the digging was bad.
After a month, he came home. He was definitely broke better, and easier to ride, and well on his way to a good performance career, but he developed a lifelong digging habit, and if left alone in a stall would basically begin construction. A shod horse can do a lot of damage in only a few minutes to a dirt stall floor. How well we had that fact learned. As soon as rubber mats began to be available for stall floors we purchased two of them for him and they went with him to shows and at home, too. I don’t remember all of the things we did to break him of the pawing habit, but it was certainly annoying.
I think horses do learn to stand quietly and live comfortably in stalls. My ex-racehorses seem to know how to get along with themselves in a small box stall, mostly because they are raised in them, and their early training involves being in stalls nearly full time. Right at the most impressionable time of their lives, they are introduced to box stalls, and I think they learn to be secure in them. Many other types of horses, however, have to learn as mature horses how to stand in them, and depending upon how an owner has their barn set up, horses can learn bad habits.
I’ve found how a stall’s doorway is arranged makes a difference. If a horse is used to a sliding door, a person would step to the doorway, slide the door open, the horse comes to the doorway and is contacted, then handled, as the person stands in the aisle — and the horse stands in the stall. The drawback to this set up is when you have a horse in a stall that requires the door to be opened by hinge, either in, or out. The horse needs to move back if the door (or gate) opens in, or stand and not run out if the door is opened out and needs to be fastened back on the side so it doesn’t swing and hurt his hips as he passes through the doorway. A horse that learns to walk right out of a stall when the person approaches the door has to relearn a habit.
A horse that is in a stall with an inside door and an outside door to a paddock also learns to run in and out at will; when the outside door is closed, they panic because they can’t get out of the stall or see outside. A horse with a stall that has open top doors, or bars on the sides and back that allows viewing of things will also be anxious when put in a stall with high walls. Some horses stop eating and stall walk if they can’t see other horses, after all, they are herd animals.
Some horses just can’t stand the inactivity of a stall, so they make their own….digging, stall walking in circles, weaving (standing in a doorway usually shifting weight from right to left front foot), cribbing or windsucking (grabbing a sill, counter, doorway with their front teeth and sucking in air), chewing the walls, knocking down buckets and feed tubs, banging on the gate especially at feed time.
Unfortunately box stalls are necessity today. We can’t always allow horses to stay outside year round. At horse shows, box stalls are the easiest option for stabling competition animals; just think of the amount of acres needed if 300 horses each needed a paddock to themselves! Teaching a young horse to stand quietly and be comfortable in a stall is a necessity, I think, because we are losing agricultural ground every day to development. We can’t always guarantee horses are going to have wonderful old-turf pastures to romp in. While that’s ideal, it’s not realistic. If we want to have horses and continue to enjoy them we have to teach our young horses how to stand in stalls and behave for their own good.