If you're familiar with the typical horse boarding arrangements, you'll recognize terms like full board, partial board and pasture board. Full board normally indicates that your horse will have a stall inside of a barn, fed hay and grain daily, as well as turned out for a few hours per day. Partial board normally indicates the provision of a stall and turnout, but with arrangements such as the owner providing feed or cleaning their own stall. And ah, pasture board - my very favorite of the whole lot. It indicates that your horse will be on pasture 24/7, normally with feed given once or twice a day. And it's much, much less expensive than either of the first two options.
When I first came into horse ownership, pasture board was generally regarded as the budget option, and many equestrians still refer to it with a sort of note of pity in their voice. Often the "pasture horses" are thought of as somewhat abandoned to the elements, the rough-and-tumble lot that exists alongside the sleek, impeccably well-groomed horses standing in stalls in the adjacent barn. Personally, I've only ever boarded once at a facility where my horse was kept in a stall overnight, and besides that my horses have always been kept on pasture board. (What can I say, I love my little mudballs, as I call them).
Ever since the first designed barns in ancient Rome, humans have designed buildings for keeping horses in. And eventually, it became the standard - most people seem to expect horses to live in stalls for a majority of the time.
While stalls are very convenient for humans in terms of feeding, grooming and preparing horses for lessons, they are actually the exact opposite of what the horse needs. Of course there are always exceptions - senior horses that need a little extra shelter or protection from rowdy herd mates, injured horses or horses with medical conditions that need to be closely managed all can benefit from stall life. But for a vast majority of healthy horses, the confines of a stall go directly against how they're designed to live. A couple of important considerations are outlined below:
1. Digestion and Movement
The equine is considered a trickle-feeder, with a very small stomach that empties in a matter of about 20 minutes and requires the horse to constantly eat. In a natural state, horse herds will continuously roam over several miles of home territory in order to graze and find water and shelter. This fact has not changed despite centuries of horses being domesticated. For an animal that is naturally meant to move constantly, stalls are severely restrictive and can result in behaviors stemming from frustration, such as pawing, cribbing, box walking, weaving and head-bobbing. It should also be noted that many horses in stalls are given their hay two or three times per day, with periods of no food in between. This is problematic for a trickle-feeder and can result in episodes of colic.
Horses are herd creatures, and they rely on a sense of touch to communicate and show affection. When they're kept in stalls, they are restrained from being able to touch one another and fulfill that social/emotional need. This can have dramatic impacts on their mental health and result in visible behavioral problems.
In comparison, pasture board is a closer approximation to the way horses naturally live. Horses have the ability to roam and graze, and can form bonds with other herd members. They can choose when to comfortably roll (rather than waiting until turnout time), mutually groom with another horse, or take a nap in the shade. They can communicate with one another using nose-touches and breaths, and generally have more agency over their lives than do horses in stall environments. Such an arrangement generally makes for happier and healthier horses, with fewer behavioral issues exhibited.
In essence, while stall board is generally considered the luxury option in the equestrian world, pasture board provides more of what horses actually need and enjoy. And to many horses who are normally deprived of those things, it would certainly appear to be the more luxurious option.
I firmly believe that it's time to look at our equine management practices in terms of the science of equine behavior, rather than following tradition or the path of least resistance. And maybe in time, pasture board really will be considered the luxury option, with owners wrestling and vying for these prime spots at their barn. Regardless of whether that ever happens, it's important to note the impact that environment has on the horses in our care, and consider the various ways that we can change or enrich them to our horses' benefit.