Management of The Stall-Bound Horse

"Stall rest" are two words that every horse owner dreads hearing from their veterinarian. If your horse becomes cranky, crazy or both after just a day inside because of stormy weather, you're sure he'll be a miserable monster after a few weeks of confinement. But every horse owner will eventually have to deal with this situation, as will every horse.

Stall rest is generally required following severe illness or surgery (colic, orthopedic) and may be needed for some lameness or large wounds. The most important thing is to keep your horse happy and relaxed so that his body has the best chance of healing quickly.

Bedding that is clean, dry and as "low dust" as you can find is important. Horses with orthopedic problems lie down a lot so a deep layer is important in preventing decubital ulcers (bed sores) on prominent bony areas. Ammonia fumes from urine-soaked bedding are harmful to the horse's lungs. Wet stalls, combined with extra manure piles, predispose the horse to developing thrush. Therefore, stalls should be mucked out twice a day. When clearing the stall with the horse in it, try not to toss the bedding up so vigorously that you create clouds of dust for him to breathe, as this is also irritating to his respiratory tract.

With your horse suddenly removed from his regular work schedule, he'll need modifications to his diet. Top-quality timothy or mixed-grass hay should make up 95 percent of what he eats. Digesting hay helps keep his gut active and as long as he has plenty of fresh water to drink, this will help minimize the risk of impaction colic. (Horses are designed to be constantly moving, grazing animals and an abrupt reduction in exercise can result in reduced gut motility and a greater-than-normal chance of intestinal blockage.) Eating hay is also time-consuming and keeps him occupied.

Grain is primarily an energy-for-work food, and this is not what you want in a stall-bound horse. Every horse gets excited when the feed cart rolls down the barn aisle, so give him a little bit to make him happy. One cup of sweet feed and one cup of pellets will be just fine. If you keep several large, smooth stones in this feed bucket, he'll have to snuffle around to get all the little pieces of grain. This keeps him busy for a few minutes and prevents him from bolting down his tiny ration in a few mouthfuls. Bran mash, spiffed up with molasses and chopped carrots, is fine for a once-a-week treat but is not nutritionally balanced enough to feed every day. Continue to provide a salt block, as this is an important electrolyte.

Boredom will be a big problem for the horse that is used to being out and about every day. A large dutch-door type window that lets the horse put his head out into the outdoor world for a good look around is preferable to a stall with windows that are blocked by screens or metal bars. Having both types is the best! You should accumulate a selection of toys – beach ball, hanging plastic jug, etc. Rotate through the toys so that every day you remove the "old" one and replace it with a new plaything. Keep at least one animal in the barn – horse, pony, donkey, goat. These companions can take turns babysitting so that you don't end up with a second stall-bound animal. Keep a radio playing quietly with neutral music like soft rock or country.

Even though your horse won't be out rolling in the mud or getting sweaty on a cross-country ride, he will still need a daily grooming to keep his coat and skin healthy. (Rolling loosens up dead hair and epithelial cells, while sweating brings that stuff to the surface so that it can be more easily removed.) Despite your best efforts, your horse probably won't look as show-ring spiffy as he used to after even just a week inside. While dry bedding is important for the reasons described earlier, it will also dry out his hair and skin a bit. With no natural moisturizing from rain or sweat, he will look a little dull and dandruffy.

But don't give up! The massaging effect on his muscles, tendons and ligaments is very therapeutic. It stimulates circulation and relieves stiffness. Twice-daily hoof picking is also still important. Groom-time is a chance to run your hands and eyes all over your horse's body, head and limbs to make note of medical improvements or note new problems developing.

Lots of brief, friendly visits to your horse's stall are appreciated. He'll always enjoy a kind word and a scratch on his favorite itchy spot. Generally avoid hand-feeding treats when you stop by, as this will create a nippy, pushy horse. "Nice" visits are especially important if you need to do painful or annoying treatments to your horse several times a day (eye medications, antibiotic injections). You don't want your normally pleasant partner to come to resent people entering his stall because he's sure something awful will be done to him on every visit.

Stall rest is definitely a bummer deal for both you and your horse, but with a few adjustments to your routine and by turning riding time into visiting time, you'll both survive. Put a nice color photograph of you and your horse at one of your favorite competitions on the stall door. It will remind you that the long-term goal is a sound, healthy horse that will soon by enjoying rides with you again.