Study: Shelter-Seeking Behavior Most Common in Poor Weather Conditions

Just because turned-out horses might not use run-in sheds often does not mean these structures are not an important part of husbandry, says Camie R. Heleski, MS, PhD, a Michigan State University instructor and researcher with an interest in studying horse behavior and welfare . Heleski and her colleagues recently completed a study in which they examined daytime shelter-seeking among horses.

"Even though horses don't necessarily use shelters to a high degree, they are an important resource, especially for horses that are out 24/7," said Heleski, whose research group watched more than 50 horses in different pastures for more than a year to see when they would use a shed.

Not surprisingly, horses were most likely to seek shelter, or at least use it as a windbreak, during cold, windy, and rainy weather.

"The same sorts of weather that make us shiver and dread going outside were exactly the conditions where our horses were most likely to seek shelter, or at least get close enough to the shed so it provided a windbreaker," she said.

The researchers found that regardless of the conditions, some horses simply would not use a shelter. She said there might be several reasons why:

  • Since most shelters have three sides (your typical run-in shed), horses might be uncomfortable in this enclosed space because they cannot see what's coming.
  • Submissive horses might be afraid to go inside the shelter: "Most of the young horses were good about sharing shelters, but more mature horses tended to have established hierarchies, and submissive individuals would sometimes never venture into the sheds."
  • Some horses will not give up an opportunity to eat; if there is hay or good grazing, these horses will choose that option over going into a shelter.

 Heleski suggested that having multiple two-sided shelters with a strong support pole at the front might encourage more use.

"I watch my three horses at home, and they don't go in the shed for very many minutes at a time, but they do go in fairly often, especially my one mare who gets cold easily," she said.

The report, "Daytime shelter-seeking behavior in domestic horses" was published in the September 2010 issue of The Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The abstract is available on The Journal of Veterinary Behavior website.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.