Every so often you will hear about horses running back into their burning barn. Why is that? It’s because they are scared and confused and headed back towards ultimate safety, their own stall. What a shame that not all stalls are safe. Whenever I am asked to look at the victim of a stall accident, I learn a little bit more about good stable construction. It always seems to be the small overlooked details that seem to get horses in trouble.
One hazardous situation that I see almost every day is something that is missing on hinged stall doors that swing outward. The unsafe feature is having only one latch on the door. Usually that single latch is about waist high for our convenience. I remember a young athletic gelding that was apt to gulp his grain. Shortly after being fed one night he got a belly ache and went down in his stall. Unfortunately, he was lying so that the hind legs were within range of his stall door. As he lashed out in pain, the foot closest to the floor hit the door with enough force to spring the door out at the bottom. The plywood door was well built, and it snapped back, trapping his leg just above the hoof. Had there been a second, lower latch a few inches off the floor, the door wouldn’t have moved. The nature of the horse is to struggle when restrained. If no one is around to release the leg (not an easy job), he will try to work himself free. In this case, it eventually meant putting this horse down. I am aware of two other horses that got into the same predicament that had to have long expensive therapies. Prevention is simple. A few dollars for a second latch placed down near the floor and less than 15 minutes to install it. It means bending down and undoing that second latch every time you have to open the stall door. If nothing else, it’s another precaution against Houdini type horses that seem to be able to open any latch. Is it worth the trouble? Because of the potential disaster here, I think so.
Stand in the middle of your horse’s stall and look all around. Think about the natural curiosity of horses and the quick moves that scared or trapped horses make. Is there anything that your animals can get hung up on, over, or under? For example, there might be an old metal salt block holder screwed to the wall or a metal pail with a ripped edge. Are there protruding screws or nails? Any loose boards that need to be screwed back in? I have sutured up many eyelids caused by each of those things.
Every once in a while I see a stall that was built “on the cheap.” That is, the stall was built with ¾ inch boards instead of solid 2 inch boards. If plywood is used it should be at least ¾ inch. Anything less than sturdy lumber is easy to punch through with a hind foot. The punching through is not the problem. As you can imagine, it’s pulling the leg back through the splintered wood that causes the damage. Using correct dimension lumber is an investment when building horse facilities. Equines get into enough trouble when you are doing everything right. No sense in asking for more.
Some stalls are designed for better horse to horse visibility and better air circulation by slatting the boards instead of making the walls solid. That’s fine if you are careful about the distance between the boards. Ten years ago I had to free an Arabian filly who was exploring her stall and worked her lower jaw between two boards and then was unable to get it out. You can imagine the scene as she kept pulling back to free her jaw. First I gave her a tranquilizer. We then had to saw through the two boards to free her. Finally it was a trip to a surgical facility to get her fractured jaw repaired. If your barn has spaces between the boards, make sure that they are wide enough so that it’s impossible for any part of the anatomy from jaws to feet to get caught. I personally like it when horses can see each other and I do agree with the better air circulation. Just be careful about keeping the distance between the boards correct. Measure the distance to make sure a jaw or a foot can’t get caught.
Similarly, the steel bars that protect windows should be spaced so that a horse’s foot would be impossible to fit between any two bars. I saw this happen when a warm blood mare got cast upside down. Her stall had a barred window that was about four feet off the floor. When she tried to get up, she kicked one hind leg, and the power of the kick sent her foot between two of the steel bars. The bars closed on her pastern. It was like being caught in a bear trap. I was called to tranquilize her so that the local fire department could free her with their “jaws of life.” When we all arrived, she had been upside down for an hour. I never did have to tranquilize her because she lay perfectly still while the firemen spread the bars and released her. Outside of treating the scrapes on her pastern, there were never any after effects which surprised all of us. I think it was because she had unusual sense for a horse. She realized that there was no way she could extricate herself, and so never struggled.
Do you have an unprotected light bulb in your horse stall? Once I was checking a horse’s mouth to see if he needed dental work. He decided that this wasn’t a good idea and went straight up on his hind legs. The top of his head hit a naked 100 watt light bulb. There was a loud zap and a long white lightning bolt that arced to the floor. No harm done, but it scared the wits out of the horse, his owner, and me. Anyone with unprotected bulbs should be aware that a horse is far more susceptible to electrocution because they are more grounded than we are, especially if they are wearing steel on their feet. For the same reason any wires in a stall should be encased in conduits. Bored horses will happily chew on a wire. Outlets don’t belong in stalls. Horses looking for something to do can and will open the safety covers with their teeth and flirt with the electricity with their tongues.
I love rubber stall mats, but I hate to see ones that don’t fit well and leave exposed edges for animals and people to trip over. Once bedding gets under a corner or an edge, more always seems to get under and build up. It takes some real grunt work with a good sharp knife, but once the mats are custom fit the stall is a much safer place for all of us to be.
Stall safety is about paying attention to all the small details. Small, but important. A horse’s stall doesn’t have to be fancy, but is should be safe.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM