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How ESSENTIAL is shade/shelter for a horse?

horse care horses Feb 12, 2021
Equiculture shade/shelter


How ESSENTIAL is shade/shelter for a horse? - Horses spend a significant amount of their time utilizing shade/shelter. It is very important to them, yet it is common to see horses with access to neither. A domestic horse should have constant access to shade/shelter.

Horses spend a significant amount of their time utilizing shade/shelter.

A free-living (wild or feral horse) can and does seek these out when necessary but a domestic horse can only make the best of what is provided for them by their owner, therefore it is very important that you provide these essential facilities for any horses in your care.


When it is hot a horse should always be able to get out of the sun. Horses that do not have access to shade will become stressed if they are not able to find it when they need it.

When it is hot a horse should always be able to get out of the sun.

There are several reasons why shade is especially important for horses when it is hot:

  • HORSES OVERHEAT VERY EASILY. The larger body an animal has, the longer it takes to cool down. So, small animals heat up/cool down much more quickly than large animals. Therefore, when it is hot, do not judge the temperature on how you feel because chances are, your horse feels even hotter.
  • THE DIET OF A HORSE MAKES THEM EVEN HOTTER. The high fibre diet of a horse (hay/grass) gives off lots of heat while being digested. This is good in cold weather but works against them in hot weather. Often a horse will not eat if it is too warm.
  • AREAS OF WHITE SKIN BURN EASILY. Horses with areas of white (pink) skin burn very easily in the sun, particularly white facial markings that are over the nostrils and white leg markings etc.
  • HORSE FLIES AND OTHER PESTS ARE WORSE IN THE FULL SUN. Pests prefer full sun, therefore, a horse without shade is also plagued by pests. A well-ventilated shelter with a breeze flowing through it will keep out many annoying insects.
  • HORSE EYES HAVE EVOLVED TO LET IN LOTS OF LIGHT - so that they can make the best use of any available light at dawn and dusk. In very bright weather (especially if a horse does not have an adequate forelock) they can be uncomfortable. Many breeds of domestic horses do not have an abundant forelock.
  • SOME BREEDS ARE SUSCEPTIBLE TO EYE CANCERS. Breeds such as Clydesdales and Appaloosas have more unpigmented skin around the eyes which makes them more at risk.


Horse rugs (such as cotton or cotton/mesh) should not be used as a substitute for shade. A horse needs to be able to get out of the sun to a cooler area. Fine meshed rugs are good for horses that are allergic to certain insect bites but they still need access to shade.


A healthy horse can cope with low (dry) temperatures without any problem but it is when it is raining that a horse will usually seek out shelter. Some breeds have been bred to have a fine skin and coat (such as Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds) which means that they tend to feel the wet and cold more than tougher, hardier breeds of horses (although there are exceptions, therefore, treat every horse as an individual). Even horses with thick winter coats need somewhere to escape from strong wind and rain.

Vegetation, such as trees/bushes etc. in paddocks are a natural form of shelter and have the added benefit of providing habitat for wildlife - some of which perform very useful functions such as eating flying pest insects by the thousands! This vegetation needs to be protected from horses (at least until it is mature). Horses will eat the leaves, chew the bark and compact the soil around the roots if given free access.

Man-made shelters in paddocks must be large enough for the entire herd to get into without danger of less dominant members of the herd getting trapped. Consider building one large shade/shelter (rather than a smaller one in each paddock) that all of the horses can get to on a daily basis. This can be situated in an area that is linked by laneways to the various paddocks and means the shade/shelter can be used all year round. Paddocks can then be rested and rotated which is vital for good land management (the idea of having one area that the horses bring themselves to is the basis of The Equicentral System – have look at this free mini-course Horses, Pasture and Grazing for more information

Man-made shelters in paddocks must be large enough for the entire herd to get into without danger of less dominant members of the herd getting trapped.

This is the previous shelter as a plan.

Many horse properties already have buildings and surfaced areas that can be utilised for this purpose, it is sometimes just a matter of ‘thinking outside the square’. Stables can be adapted into walk-in walk-out shelters for example. Traditional stables tend to be too hot for the use of shade in hot weather (due to the enclosed sides) and should have a shaded yard attached that the horse can get out to.

Shelters can take various forms from a simple roof with no sides, which gives some protection against the elements but most importantly provides shade without being too enclosed (a ‘bus stop’ shelter), to a roof with one, two or three sides (four would make it a stable), to a wall with no roof (a windbreak commonly seen in temperate climates).

In many cases, a combination of a man-made shelter (such as a large roof with no sides), with trees/bushes positioned to reduce wind speed works best. Vegetation can be planted so that it acts as a windbreak but allows cool breezes to pass through in summer. If you plant vegetation for this purpose you can use shade cloth on the sides of the building as a temporary ‘windbreak’ and for shade until the vegetation has matured sufficiently.

If horses are kept in individual paddocks with a shelter in each, then it should be positioned so that the horses can see and preferably touch each other while using it. Otherwise, they will tend to ignore the shade/shelter because the need to be near other horses often overrides the need to seek shade/shelter. In this situation, it is preferable to create a shelter that covers part of several yards/paddocks. That way horses can stand together and receive the benefits of the shade/shelter. In this situation, it is extra important to have safe fencing between each yard to minimise the risk of fence injuries caused by horses interacting over a fence.


  • Locate shelters on firm footing - i.e. avoid slopes, clay or low-lying areas that get wet.
  • Build shelters with a non-erodible surface (e.g. concrete, compacted quarry rubble, or commercial horse rubber flooring on a base), and fit gutters to control/divert rain/stormwater.
  • If dust or mud is an issue, surface high traffic areas around the shade/shelter with materials such as fine quarry rubble, sand etc. to stabilise the soil (if using sand be aware that you will need another surface in the area that you provide feed to avoid sand colic).
  • Consider building a shelter that is movable, this way, if the location is not right you can move it later.
  • In the case of an individual shelter aim to feed the horse in the shelter to keep feed dry and to encourage maximum impact (time spent by the horse in one spot) to be concentrated on a durable surface. With groups of horses, hay can be fed in a shade/shelter but it must be large enough for them to be able to safely get out of each other’s way. Never feed concentrates to a group of horses in a confined area as concentrate feeding increases competition.

We (Equiculture) have a book about the subject of equine buildings/facilities (and The Equicentral System), you can have look here:

I hope you have enjoyed this article, it is one of the Equiculture Essentials articles for members of our Facebook Group for novice horse riders and owners (there are also lots of equine professionals, as well as ourselves, to give help and advice) - anyone can join: hope to see you there :)

Jane xxx

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