Indoor versus Outdoor Board – What do the Facts Say?

Indoor versus Outdoor Board – What do the Facts Say?

By Lindsey Forkun,


It seems that for every person who swears by outdoor board, there is also a person that claims indoor board is better. Grand Prix Show Jumper McLain Ward thinks all horses should be stabled, even retired horses. Grand Prix Show Jumper Amy Millar thinks that keeping horses outside is healthier and at Millerbrook Farm all of their youngsters and retired horses live outside.


This article looks at the facts – what is healthier for a horse? Put your personal opinions aside and instead open yourself to evidence by certified equine professionals.


First off, it is important to understand what is meant by indoor and outdoor board, for the purpose of this article:

  • Indoor board means the horse is stabled in a stall, minimum of 10 feet by 10 feet, for a period of 10 to 15 hours. The horse is provided turnout in a paddock/field for the remainder of the day which may or may not include other horses for company.
  • Outdoor board means the horse is outside for the entire day and night, regardless of weather. The horse is provided with a shelter that has adequate space for all of the horses in the paddock, the paddock is safe (free of dangerous debris, safe fencingetc). The horse is provided with at least one companion horse.


There are several key areas that will be considered when comparing indoor versus outdoor board:

  • Convenience
  • Cost
  • Mental Health
  • Physical Health
  • Safety


When exploring each of these categories, we assume the horse considered for indoor/outdoor board is of average health and does not have an illness, injury, or condition that requires quarantine or stall rest.




Convenience is a bit tricky to decide which type of board has the upper hand. There are many factors to consider. Whose convenience are you considering? Generally it is easier for barn staff to care for outdoor board horses because of less mucking, spreading bedding turn in/out and other chores related to horses that are indoors.


However, for the owner/rider, it can be quite convenient to park at a stable, walk a short distance inside, and find your horse ready and waiting inside for you. Your horse is dry because they are out of the rain which is more convenient if you are going to ride.


On the other hand, a horse that is boarded outside generally has less excess energy and play – which is much more convenient for training/riding because you don’t have to spend time lunging or arguing with your horse for their attention and cooperation (which may not be true for all horses, but certainly a lot of horses that are stalled require extra training to get rid of excess energy and playfulness).


This one is a draw.


Outdoor Board: 1 point

Indoor Board: 1 point




Cost is a relatively simple category, although you can look at it in different ways. From a boarder’s perspective, generally indoor board is more expensive than outdoor board because of the increased staff costs for daily mucking, bring in and turnout, as well as increased costs for bedding.


Outdoor horses should still have their paddocks cared for, but often this job can be done by a tractor or harrow which takes significantly less time to groom a paddock with 10 horses in it, than to muck 10 stalls.


From a farm owner’s perspective, building a stable with stalls is often more expensive than building a large run in shelter and safe paddock. The costs for a stable requires more space, more material, construction of additional walls, floors, and stable doors. The cost for building a safe run in shed simply requires a structure with three walls and a roof; there is no need for stall doors, stall bars, etc.


Whichever way you slice it, pursuing outdoor board is less costly than indoor board.


Outdoor Board: 2 points

Indoor Board: 1 point


Mental Health 


How many times have you walked down a barn aisle and had a horse try to nip you, pin their ears at you, or see them performing a stable vice like weaving or cribbing? How many times have you walked by horse paddocks with horses on outdoor board and notice the same types of negative behaviour?


Horses that are in a stall often are more likely to be stressed and bored, which leads to stable vices, negative behaviours, and even health problems. 1 Common vices include wind sucking, cribbing, weaving, and stall walking. Julie Christie, M.Sc., warns that sometimes once a stbale vice is learnt; it may never be stopped and instead only managed. 1


Christie shares the advice: “Efforts should be made to reduce the amount of time a horse spends in the stall by allowing the horse plenty of turnout and exercise.”4 Christie explains that turnout alone isn’t ideal—the horse should be turned out with other horses to allow the horse to socialize with other horses. 1



Horses living in stalls experience more stress. 1 Stress can lead to personality changes including depression and aggression in horses. 1


Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, explains that lack of socialization and lack of movement (from lack of turnout) all contribute to stress, which has a profoundly negative impact on the horse’s mental health. 2


Reducing stall time, allowing turnout with other horses, a diet high in forage, and providing a reasonable training schedule based on positive reinforcement will all contribute to a healthy horse and help to prevent stress and behavioural issues. 1


Sleep is also very important to a horse’s health. It is fairly common knowledge that horses can sleep standing up, but what you may not know is that horses do need to lie down and have a snooze to get a really good deep sleep. “Horses can become sleep-deprived if they're prevented from lying down…but this won't happen in a day, or even several days; it takes weeks, research shows. And most horses find a way to lie down and sleep, even in situations you might think are less than ideal,” says McDonnell.3 


McDonnell conducted research investigating sleep patterns and effects of horses which included watching hundreds of round the clock observation tapes of various horses sleeping.3 The research showed that horses “appear perfectly happy sleeping on the ground, even hard ground, as long as it's not very wet or covered in deep mud. Stabled horses don't sleep better for having deep bedding.” 3


McDonnell PhD (2010) further explains “Where bedding and stall flooring can become an issue is in the case of a horse who's older or who has a disability that makes getting up and down difficult. If the surface is at all slippery, this horse may be unwilling to lie down, fearing he won't be able to get up quickly. An older horse may resist lying down to the point that he becomes sleep-deprived. He may sleep better outside, where the ground provides more solid footing, than in a deep-bedded stall.” 3


Ultimately for mental health, the point goes to outdoor board. Horses that are outside sleep just as well, experience less stress, are less bored, and develop fewer vices.


Outdoor Board: 3 points

Indoor Board: 1 point


Physical Health


There are many parts to a horse, but many experts agree that one of the most important parts is the hooves. A horse with unhealthy hooves is likely to become unhealthy overall, and without healthy hooves the horse may not be able to work.


Horses’ hooves are designed for movement. When looking at hoof design and health, one of the best people to consult is Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD—who is a leading researcher in the natural function of the equine foot. In addition to his lab work he has also observed hundreds of free-roaming feral horses.4


What we learned from the design of the hoof and how it functions is that movement is good for the hooves. Constant movement allows healthy hooves to grow. 4


Kate Romanenko, Hoof Care Specialist, recommends constant turnout to allow for movement. She explains: “Movement creates circulation, which is vital for healthy hooves and also the rest of the horse.”5


When you confine the horse in a stall and do not allow enough movement, the pumping action of blood and expansion of the hoof is limited. 5 Limited movement impacts more than just the hooves; the whole body of the horse is affected. 5


“The consequences of this are significant. With their natural function compromised, key hoof structures become weak through lack of use, thus more vulnerable to navicular syndrome and other lamenesses.4


Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, explains that lack of socialization and lack of movement (from lack of turnout) all contribute to stress, which has a profoundly negative impact on the body. 2


Carey Williams, PhD, Equine management specialist and Assistant Director of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University reported that 80 to 90 per cent of all racehorses, 60 per cent of all performance horses (including eventers, jumpers, and Western performance horses), and 30 to 40 per cent of dressage horses develop gastric ulcers during the normal course of their careers. 2


Sarah L. Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University Long-term explains that exposure to stress suppresses horses' immune systems and alters their metabolic rates. 2


“The definition of prolonged stress exposure is that the horse cannot adapt to the stress and becomes clearly agitated.” 2


“The least-stressed horses I've even seen are owned by competitive and endurance riders; they keep their horses outside most of the time; they don't over supplement them or overfeed grain.” 2


Being stalled goes against the horse’s natural environment, physical requirements, and social requirements leading to excess stress. “In one study, horses usually kept outside developed ulcers within a week of being brought into the barn.” 2


“While some horses thrive on barn life, pasture time is critical to keep their stress quotients low.”3 Carey Williams PhD (2010) recommends resisting the urge to keep your horses stalled, and instead provide plenty of turnout. 2


Outdoor Board: 4 points

Indoor Board: 1 point





Building safe paddocks includes using safe fencing, building safe run in shelters/ shade structures, positioning gates in safe places (i.e. not in a corner where you could get boxed in), having a paddock safe from debris, and safe from predators/insects. Stalls have similar safety considerations.


Proper paddock maintenance can reduce hazards along with regular vaccination and de-worming schedules. In areas where predators are a threat to a horse’s safety, then special fencing or other measures may need to be considered.


Stalls pose their own safety hazards such as fires – although barn fires may be rare, a horse trapped in a stall has no means for escape; at least in a paddock a horse has the option to run away from fire or predator.


In November, 2010 a Wisconsin farm went up in flames killing 24 horses.6 When the fire was noticed, some people rushed to save the horses and managed to get six horses out of their stalls before smoke and flames engulfed the whole barn and burned the rest of the animals to death. 6 There were 22 horses that were pastured outside on outdoor board and all of theses horses were safe and lived. 6 The farm fire was attributed to an electrical malfunction. 6


In 2002 at Woodbine Race Track, a barn went up in flames with 126 horses – 32 died despite the best efforts of people trying to save them.7 The cost of the damage was over $1,000,000 and the value of the horses lost was estimated over $5,000,000. 7 The loss goes beyond money, the stories of the barn fires are emotional and heart wrenching, in one article a quote read "You can't replace those horses with money," a devastated trainer said before collapsing in tears with friends in the parking lot of the stables. "They mean more than money." 7


It seems that horses on outdoor board escape the fatal barn fires, but are not completely unsusceptible to natural disasters. There are a number of reported cases of horses dying from being struck by lightening and even swept up into tornados while out in their paddocks. However, these cases are usually limited to less than 5 fatalities each compared to barn fires that claim the lives of many more horses.


Lightening is statistically more likely to strike a barn and cause a barn fire than it is to strike a horse outside in a paddock.8 Lightening has been reported to strike horses through barn windows or even cause death through ground lightning strikes. 8 In adverse weather, it seems the horses are best left outside if there is adequate shelter, unless you have a barn that has taken lightening and fire precautions.


While barn fires are fairly uncommon, they are a real risk – when disaster does strike, the result is often tragic. When paired with good paddock planning for appropriate fencing, shelter, and turnout mates, the safety risks of being on outdoor board are fewer compared to the almost certain death from being stalled in a barn during fire.


Outdoor Board: 5 points

Indoor Board: 1 point




Outdoor Board: 5 points

Indoor Board: 1 point


After consulting many professionals with PhDs, Masters, and certificates from various parts of the world in different specialties the answer becomes quite clear. Outdoor board is a healthier choice for horses provided there is adequate shelter, safe fencing, and safe turnout friends. Outdoor board provides movement, social interaction, adequate sleep, and reduced stress levels.


Professionals agree that if you have to put your horse in a stall, you should try and provide as much turn out as possible with other horses to help keep your horse healthy. Research shows that if you stall horses, providing open concept stalls where horses can see the other horses in the stable (using bars instead of wooden/concrete walls) can provide some additional comfort to horses.




1. 4. Christie, Julie M.Sc. (2008). Horse Behaviour and Stable Vices.


2. Raia, Pat (2010). Stress Busters.


3. McDonnell PhD, Sue (2010). Sleep Patterns in Horses.


4. (2010) Is Barefoot Better?


5. Romenanko, Kate Hoofcare Specialist (2005). Dare to Go Bare?


6. Barn Fire Kills 24 Horses at Wisconsin Rescue (2010).


7. Tragic Fire at Woodbine (2002).


8. Thunder Rolls (2010).

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Comment by Hope Brown on January 8, 2011 at 6:55pm
my horses go inside in the day in summer and out at night and inside during the night and out in the night when winter and the are as happy as can be
Comment by Lindsey Forkun on January 6, 2011 at 3:57pm
Yes I keep my horses outside too - except for special circumstances too like when showing, going to a clinic, etc.... I think are times when a stall is an appropriate choice for sure... but for the day to day living if you can provide 24/7 turnout it seems to be the best for the average horse.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 6, 2011 at 3:24pm
Personally I agree that outdoor board is better.  When I had horses it is what I used except in really unusual circumstances--say an injury.

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