Full-time stall confinement isn’t good for a horse’s physical or mental welfare. Horses are social animals who, in the wild, move long distances and eat small, frequent meals all day long.

Many domestic horses are stalled due to boarding situations, training, or for weight management. Daily turnout and exercise are essential when this is the case.

Sometimes, long-term stall confinement or stall rest is necessary for a horse to recuperate after a surgery or a significant injury or illness.

By restricting a horse’s movement to a small area, stall rest helps prevent the overloading of weakened, healing structures. This can support faster recovery and limit re-injury risk.

While your horse may need stall rest to get better faster, there are a number of factors to consider so you can keep your horse healthy while their movement is confined.

When do Horses Need Stall Rest?

Stall rest is usually defined as the restriction of your horse’s movement to an area of 12 x 12 feet (4 x 4 metres). Large breed horses may be confined to a larger area, such as 20 x 20 feet (6 x 6 meters).

The period or duration of stall rest will depend on the specific diagnosis and extent of the injury. [1]

Stall rest isn’t required for many injuries and, in some cases, may slow healing. However, it is commonly used with serious injuries, such as:

  • Bone fractures
  • Tendon, ligament, or severe muscle injuries
  • Acute laminitis
  • Post-operative recuperation, such as after colic surgery
  • Lacerations or cuts requiring stitches
  • Severe burns or infections
  • Quarantine if a transmissible illness is suspected

Stall confinement is often needed in these situations to restrict movement and prevent your horse from further injuring itself.

As prey animals, horses have evolved to hide signs of injury or illness. If they have the space to do so, they may run or bear weight on injured limbs, causing further damage.

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Risks to Long-Term Confinement

Horses evolved to wander and graze throughout the day. Confining them to a stall is not only boring but can also lead to serious health and behavioural problems.

Stall rest should only be used if absolutely needed under the guidance of a veterinarian. It’s also important to understand that stall rest can be counterproductive for recovery from many types of injuries.

Movement aids in the healing process by promoting blood circulation and the supports the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to damaged tissues. [2] Stall rest prevents normal movement and may slow healing.

Preventing freedom of movement and a lack of social interaction can also have negative psychological effects on the horse. [1]

Being aware of problems that stall confinement can cause, owners may be able to prevent them. The following are all challenges associated with long-term stall rest:

Stereotypical Behaviours

One of the most common psychological problems associated with stall confinement is the development of stereotypical behaviours. [9]

Keeping a horse stalled inhibits the expression of natural equine behaviours, which causes stress and frustration. Some horses develop stereotypies, which are compulsive behaviours that may serve as a coping mechanism.

Stereotypical behaviours can be divided into movement-related and oral behaviours. They are repetitive behavioural patterns that serve no functional goal, but that horses may engage in for a large part of the day. Some of these behaviours can even be harmful to the horse. [3]

Studies show that stereotypies are associated with decreased social contact and insufficient dietary forage. Horses that engage in one type of stereotypic behaviour are more likely to engage in another as well. [3]

The most common stereotypical behaviours displayed by horses include:


Horses that crib-bite usually grasp an object, such as the water bucket or the top of the stall door, with their incisors, flex their neck, and suck air into their pharynx. Sometimes, horses that crib will even suck air without grasping an object.

Feeding grain or sweet feed is associated with cribbing, as well as lack of exercise. Researchers also believe that cribbing may be associated with abdominal discomfort. [3]

Once the behaviour has been established, horses will continue to crib even when turned out to pasture. Cribbing can cause damage to the incisors, and other complications include gastric ulcers and epiploic foramen entrapment. [3]

Wood Chewing

Wood chewing is a behaviour that is similar to cribbing in that the horse will perform the behaviour by grasping wood with its incisors. However, unlike cribbing, the horse will chew and swallow pieces of wood it bites off.

Wood chewing is believed to be caused by a lack of roughage in the diet. Stall confinement, high-concentrate diets, and lack of exercise and/or stimulation can increase the chances of developing this behaviour. [3]


Weaving is a behaviour in which the horse repetitively sways on its forelegs, shifting its weight back and forth by moving the head and neck side to side. Weaving horses may also sway the rest of their body and pick up their front legs.

Stall Walking

Horses that stall walk usually walk in circles in their stalls. Stress and anxiety appear to worsen this behaviour. Once turned out into a bigger area such as a pen or pasture, horses may continue to walk in larger circles.


Pawing is when a horse strikes the ground or a stall wall with one hoof. Though any horse may display this stereotypic behaviour at times, pawing can become chronic with repeated episodes throughout the day. Pawing appears to be the result of frustration or anticipation.

Gastric Ulcers

Another challenge of stall confinement is increased stress and changes in your horse’s natural feeding behaviour. These changes can lead to gut issues, such as gastric ulcers, especially if horses are stalled without free-choice access to forage.

Horses are unique because their stomach continually secretes acid to digest roughage, even if their stomach is empty.

Infrequent feedings often lead to long periods of time with no roughage to eat. Even when forage is provided free-choice to horses in stalls, they may spend less time eating than horses that aren’t stalled. [4]

If your horse spends long periods with an empty stomach, gastric acid can eat away at the stomach lining causing ulcers to form.

High-stress levels, diets with excessive grain and use of NSAID medications can also negatively impact the gastrointestinal tract’s protective barrier and increase the risk of hindgut ulcers. [5]


Research shows that stall confinement is associated with a majority of cases of impaction colic.

Physically, a horse’s digestive system does not function well without movement to promote gut motility (the transit of feed through the gastrointestinal system).

Because of this, horses on stall rest should be fed a minimal amount of grain and have free-choice good-quality hay to ensure adequate fibre intake. Horse also need adequate water consumption and should be hand-walked or allowed limited exercise, if possible. [1][6]

Owners should continually monitor their horse’s appetite and manure production. A decrease in manure or dry, hard manure can be a symptom of colic. [1] If colic is suspected, contact your veterinarian right away as it is a medical emergency.

Weakened Musculoskeletal system

Long-term stall confinement can lead to weakened bones, tendons, and ligaments. Strict stall rest can also result in adhesions of healing tissues, as well as reduced function and range of movement. [1]

Some veterinarians believe that strict stall confinement may actually be a less favourable choice for tendon and ligament healing.

Instead, graded exercise protocols that encourage healing without overloading the limb may be a better alternative to both stall confinement or pasture turnout. [1]

Anxiety and Depression

Extended stall rest can also lead to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression in horses, though so