Horse Turnout – Opinion 2008

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stall or pasture?


I date this entry because I found myself coming to this opinion late in 2007 and feel like I may have moved into the past a bit.

When I started riding (a long time ago), horses didn’t go outside…..EVER. Your horse lived in a stall 24/7 and in the barn they stayed; warm, dry, safe, and ready to ride. It was normal. I never questioned it. I was a little kid, and it seemed to make sense to me. I rode my pony 6 days a week, and when I rode my pony, I mean I RODE my pony for hours. You literally had to pull me off my pony. This posed a problem when he was “wild” and in such good shape you couldn’t wear him out with 10 straight hours of lunging if you wanted to. He was one fit pony. But, he didn’t see daylight unless I was riding outside; along with every other horse in the barn.

Maybe this was confined to the hunter/jumper world, but horses did NOT go outside. You could walk them outside to graze. There were pastures; they were really green and full of grass, mostly because the horses never went out in them.

Give the horses some time to stretch their legs….but not too much time for them to hurt themselves.

Then, shortly after I moved into a small junior horse, turnout became an option. I moved to a barn that had all day turn-out. Still not really understanding the thought behind horse turnout, I figured, “well that’s good”. Of course I wasn’t accustomed to scraping large amounts of mud before a ride, but it was nice to see the horses outside playing, grazing, or in some cases, running like maniacs. They must be doing what they want to be doing.

Then I moved yet to another barn that had many more “high level” show horses. They offered minimal turn-out. Most horses were turned outside from 1-2 hours a day, with split boots and bell boots. This seemed like a nice compromise. Give the horses some time to stretch their legs….but not too much time for them to hurt themselves. A few people, some with VERY nice, expensive horses moved to another show barn that offered more turn-out. I, on the other hand, still thought “well, they get worked and none of the horses seem unhappy”. Now, there were a large amount of horses that wore cribbing collars (red flag) and even more that would weave in their stalls (another red flag). But, most of that I thought was because they were Thoroughbreds off the track, and they all have some nervous wacky habit from being in that atmosphere.

Once I started having a little more forethought and tried to learn more about horses’ behavior, physiology, and overall “natural” state, I realized horses should be outside as much as possible. By all means, bring them into a stall at night or if the weather is bad, but let them be horses. They should be in a herd during the day, relaxing, living as they would in the wild.

Then I had a mare, a mare who REALLY liked other horses. She liked other horses so much that if she was on a fence line with the same horse two days in a row, you couldn’t ride her because she would panic without being able to see the other horse. Now, throw her in a herd, and you can only imagine the monster she would turn into.

At this point, I wanted to give this mare the ability to be a horse. But, I was spending a lot of money so I could ride and show her. This now made it so I was spending a lot of money for her to have friends and I was only able to ride when all the other horses were in the barn and never at a horse shows.

That, didn’t make sense to me. Luckily, the barn(s) we cycled through over the years ended up having rotating turnout for a few hours a day. She didn’t get attached, and was still able to get out a little bit every day (weather permitting).

As a limited turnout routine became commonplace for my mare, more and more “research” came out about the benefits of turnout for the horse’s brain and body. More turnout meant sounder minds and bodies. This too, made sense. Of course, not only does a horse’s digestive system work better because they are moving as they “graze”, but horses are more sound because their joints are moving frequently so they don’t go from standing in their stall, to working, then back to standing in their stall.

I have always, and will always, think horses without jobs (or high level jobs), young horses, horses with special needs, arthritic horses, or horses that are downright bonkers NEED turnout of some sort. But, is all day turnout, every day turnout, the answer for EVERY horse?

I think not only is that an important question for your pocketbook, but an important question for your horse’s overall wellbeing.

I have aspirations for “us”. I also love this horse to death, so I want him to be happy and healthy.

Not EVERY horse actually WANTS to be outside all day. There are many horses that have higher anxiety when outside all day. Maybe the anxiety is from being used to a stall, or even being used to the barn. But, how do you gauge your horse’s happiness?

Every horse is unique, every turnout situation is unique, and it’s important to remember your goals for you and your horse and the pros and cons of turnout in relation to those goals.

Right now, I have an 11 year old Holsteiner gelding, upper level jumper, and he is at the peak of his performance. With this in mind, I will let you know his turnout history so you understand what he is accustomed to in his life.

From birth-1yr ,he was outside all day and brought in at night. From 1-2yrs, he was outside 24/7 (weather permitting) with other horses of all ages. This was in the Midwest, so if it was really cold or thunderstormy, he came in at night. From 3-4yrs, he lived outside 24/7 in all weather (with shelter of course) with no friends. From 5-8yrs, he lived in a run w/shelter and daily turnout with one other horse (he isn’t always that friendly), weather permitting. From 8-10, he lived in a stall with daily turnout. He didn’t like to be outside all that much and would run the fence line to come inside (not every day and for no apparent reason (bugs, weather, feeding, other horses).

So, during the last year he has had some “soundness” issues. He has not been LAME, just off. X-rays all clean, most likely narrowed it down to soft tissue. Stall rest was his prescription. 4 months total. He was walked every day, and generally he seemed very happy in his stall. I got him toys he enjoyed very much. He had a few outbursts of bucking in his stall, but for the most part…he was alert, happy, maybe a little bored, but no more than when he was outside.

Unknown as to how he injured himself, I question turnout for him at all now that he will be coming back into work. I have aspirations for “us”. I also love this horse to death, so I want him to be happy and healthy.

Our need for soundness and his need for “normal” horse behavior poses a conflict of interest…or does it? He likes his job; I would say he loves his job. He has always loved to jump. Flatwork, he could do without, but he loves jumping. He REALLY likes people, he likes interaction with people, he acts like he is a people sometimes. He doesn’t have any bad habits such as cribbing, weaving, chewing. He doesn’t have any health problems that could pose a problem to not going outside (COPD, colic, ulcers, arthritis, tying up). He always seems content in his stall, especially when he is in a work program.

So, I have decided that I am going to keep him from turnout. This means I will probably try to hand-graze him as much as possible and get him out 6 days a week. But, I don’t think in any way I am being cruel. Additionally, I’ve always worried about his focus when consistently turned out, and especially with a friend. He doesn’t scream for his friend, he doesn’t act agitated that he is away from his buddy, but I do notice that he is a little more “nonchalant” about work.

This being said, I think turning horses out is good, but keeping a horse in a stall isn’t bad. It depends on the circumstances of the horse and owner. No, a horse should not remain cooped up in a stall 24/7 with no chance of seeing sunlight. But, a horse that gets consistent work, is showing, could get injured, or could become unable to focus on “work”, maybe should be considered limited to no turnout.

That’s just my opinion of horse turnout in 2008. Maybe that will change. We will see….