Brown horse drinking water - A horse's habitat in the wild and in domestic situations

Where Do Horses Live?

The domestic environment in which horses live can, at times, be vastly different from the environment they’d inhabit out in the wild. In domestic situations, horses may be confined to a stall or a yard for part (or even most!) of their day. They may otherwise be found in a small field or paddock, or out in a large grassy area where they can roam many acres of land. The latter choice is perhaps most similar to a horse’s living situation in the wild.

A Horse’s Habitat in the Wild

The habitats of wild horses can vary greatly, depending on where they are in the world. Native Shetland ponies often live on moors with a sparse amount of trees and hilly, windy grassy areas. Arabian horses, on the other hand, originated in the Arabian Peninsula and are used to very dry, arid areas.

Brumbies in the Australian bush are used to somewhat grassy areas interspersed with lots of eucalypt and wattle trees, and just a little grass. Mustangs may be found in mountainous areas that expose them to wind, along with snow in the cooler months, as well as grassy plains.

In spite of geographical differences, all wild horse habitats have the following things in common:

  • Horses may have to travel long distances to reach grass and water
    • Horses are known as browsers or grazers—animals that are consistently on the move and eating
    • As body fluids are only able to move through a horse’s lymphatic system by way of continual movement, the need to frequently move in order to graze helps that system function properly
  • Horses are able to exercise without restriction
  • Horses live in herds and rely on each other for protection from predators
  • Horses use hills, trees and cliff faces as protection from the elements, including wind, rain and sun

The Domestication of Horses

As horses have been deemed useful for both riding and recreation, the act of domestication has become more common. Now, horses are commonly housed in stables, yards and paddocks or fields.

Stables are made up of stalls that measure around 12 by 12 feet (or about 3.7 by 3.7 metres) in diameter. Within one of these square, confined areas, a horse will stand on some bedding. They’ll have access to hay and other feed, and have a water point from which they can drink. Some horse owners or caregivers will choose to put a horse ball or even a mirror within each stall to curb potential boredom issues.

Horses may be stabled for competition, because of an injury, or as a way of keeping them confined until an appointment in the future. For horses that are stabled for a lengthy period of time, it’s important to ensure that they get time to exercise outside their stalls. It’s also important to allow them to interact with other horses and take part in mutual grooming sessions.

If a horse is kept in a yard, it still needs access to plenty of food and fresh water. A yard may be covered in dirt, sand or grass, and it may also contain more than one horse. Because a yard is still a small, enclosed area, horses kept in yards also need to be given time to exercise or stretch their legs in a larger field.

For horses that live in a paddock or field, their living conditions often mimic their natural habitat. If they’re kept together in herds and have continual access to food and water, this is consistent with some of the conditions they’d experience in the wild. They’ll have to deal with the restriction of fences, but will normally have suitable shelter, safe fencing and no predators to be concerned about.

Shelter may be provided in the form of a roofed, three-sided structure; a stall that they can enter and leave as they desire; or a belt of trees. Living in a field eliminates a horse’s need to travel for food and water, as they’d need to out in the wild, but still allows them the opportunity to live with other horses and exercise freely.

The Five Freedoms

From a welfare perspective, horses need to have access to the five freedoms to be truly content in their environment. Horses have the right to be free:

  • From hunger, thirst and malnutrition
  • From disease, pain and injury
  • From physical and thermal discomfort
  • From fear and distress
  • To express normal behavioural patterns

When we take it upon ourselves to domesticate horses and look after them, we need to keep the five freedoms in mind. We must ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Does my horse have consistent access to grazing opportunities? (This can be in the form of pasture, hay or chaff.)
  • Does my horse have consistent access to an ample amount of clean water?
  • Is my horse’s diet lacking, or has the horse been provided with enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to grow and function?
  • Is my horse comfortable, free from pain and from extreme weather conditions?  (Remember, horses generally prefer to be cold instead of hot, but either extreme isn’t ideal.)
  • Is my horse fearful or distressed?  (This can be due to inflicted pain, perceived pain or even due to being separated from other horses.)
  • Is my horse able to express normal behavioural patterns? (Think about how horses communicate, the herd dynamic, what they prefer to eat and how often, as well as their ability to freely move. When we provide housing for horses, we need to consider their welfare as well as what’s practical and affordable.)

The Bottom Line

Horses can survive and thrive in a variety of different habitats. Some may even be living in situations that would shock other horse owners!

Whatever a horse’s living situation might be, however, it’s important that they have access to the five freedoms. As horse owners and caregivers, it’s our responsibility to do the best we can to ensure this.


image: Wikimedia Commons