Most horses learn to unlatch gates by chance or trial and error, but a few seem to learn by watching. Escape-proofing your stall doors and gates makes good sense even if you don't have a resident Houdini. Door closures that allow horses to hang their heads out into the aisle and paddock/pasture gates that reach no higher than the horse's chest are open invitations for escape efforts. An inquisitive horse who gets his mouth on the door latch can fiddle it open, and a pusher with his head over the door gains needed leverage to muscle his way toward freedom.
When a stall with a sturdy sliding door is available, put the escape artist there, using a latch to secure it in the closed position. Without the latch, the horse may discover he can use his head to shove the slider open. For added security, drill a slanted hole beside the stall door that is accessible when the door is shut. Have a pin hanging by a short chain from the doorframe at that midway point so that it's ready to be inserted into the hole as soon as the door is closed.
If Dutch doors are all you have or all you prefer for your stabling, you can simply shut the top half on an inveterate escaper, but the isolation and lack of ventilation can be drawbacks to such complete confinement. The addition of a door grill or screen on the interior of the doorframe provides an inescapable barrier without impeding air circulation and visual contact with the outside world.
Another Dutch-door strategy is to add a shelf of sorts above the door latch. The protrusion interferes with the horse's ability to reach the hardware but still gives you full access to the latch.
In cases where horses can reach door or gate latches, upgrade your hardware to reduce the likelihood that they?ll meet success with any fiddling they might do.
At the same time you want to foil the mouthy horse, you need the latch to be readily operable by you, even with one hand. A standard sliding bolt meets the ease-of-operation standard for you, but it's not much of a challenge to bored horses either. You can upgrade its effectiveness by installing an eyebolt in the door face, turned to the vertical and located to fit in the latch handle in its locked position.
When the door is closed and the latch in place, attach a snap to the eyebolt, and the horse won?t be able to raise the handle or slide back the bolt. The eyebolt alone may be deterrent enough, but snaps add another layer of difficulty that few horses can overcome.
Another strategy for shoring up your existing Dutch-door hardware is the addition of a second latch on the lower part of the door. Beyond the reach of the horse's mouth, these lower closures also help resist the pressure of leaners and pushers. You can install ?kick bolts? that you operate with a nudge of a foot, leaving your hands free and your body in a safe, upright position.
Commercial ?horse-proof ? latches are worth a try for horses who seem to have all the standard equipment figured out. And reinforcing each gate closure with a sturdy chain and snap placed out of the horses? reach is pretty good insurance that turned-out horses will stay where they belong.
Unless they?re jumpers: For all the frustration latch fiddlers and door bargers cause, the most difficult breakout behavior to deal with is escape by jumping. The risk of injury to the jumper himself is high, and any entanglements or crashes he experiences can allow other horses to escape as well.
Once a horse learns he can jump out of confinement, he may have to be stabled round the clock, except when he's being ridden.
Installing a higher fence around his pasture or paddock is an expensive option for continuing with turnout. Or you can probably deter a jumper by adding a T-arm extension around the top of the existing fence to support a braided electric tape extending two feet to the interior. At the next attempted jump, he'll contact the tape, feel a shock and think better of trying that trick again.
This information is adapted from an article by Jennifer Williams, PhD, that first appeared in EQUUS magazine and is in the Tractor Supply Company's "Trail Riding Essentials."