It’s widely accepted among the equestrian community that horses are happiest and healthiest when they are kept outside at pasture for as much time as possible.
In this article, we discuss the benefits and pitfalls of turning horses out, as well as asking the all-important question, how often should you turn your horse out?
Turnout versus stabled
There are many reasons why horses should not be kept stabled for long periods, although there are occasions when that can’t be avoided.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of turnout versus stabling.
1. Natural behavior
Although most horses do spend some of their time confined to a stable, that’s not natural behavior.
Wild horses live in herds, continually on the move as they search for fresh grazing. As flight animals, horses are more relaxed when they can see 360 degrees around them and have a clear escape route if they need it. A horse that is kept stabled cannot run away from things that frighten him, which can cause stress-related behaviors or stable vices to develop.
2. Healthy hooves
Constant movement promotes excellent blood circulation, which is vital for good hoof health. A horse that is standing in a stable all day is deprived of that opportunity, and his hoof health could suffer as a result.
Also, standing on damp bedding that’s soiled with urine and droppings can cause problems such as thrush and white line disease.
Many horses that are left standing in a stable can develop filled legs or edema.
Typically, the legs become swollen below the knee, as fluid accumulates underneath the skin, and all four legs can be affected.
Usually, the swelling disappears when the horse is allowed to move around, and the horse is not lame.
4. Leg injuries
Although you would think that your horse is safe while he’s standing in his stable, it’s amazing what mischief equines can find when confined to barracks!
Injury can occur when bored; frustrated horses kick their doors or even the stable walls, and pawing at the ground near the stable door can result in damaged shoes, uneven wear of the horse’s hooves, or even lameness.
Also, heavier breeds and those with feathers can be attacked by mites that are sometimes present in straw bedding. The irritation caused by the mites can lead to the horse stamping his feet or biting himself, potentially causing injury.
5. Stable vices
Horses are intelligent, herd creatures that quickly become bored when isolated in a stable for long periods of time.
Often, being shut inside leads to the development of stress-related behaviors and stable vices.
Cribbing or wind-sucking, as it’s also known, is a very common behavior where a horse grabs an upright object with its upper incisor teeth and arches its neck while taking gulps of air. Cribbing can cause colic and uneven wear of the teeth, not to mention inflicting a lot of damage to wooden structures in the stable environment.
Weaving is another common stable vice where the horse stands behind the stable door swinging his head and neck from side to side. Weaving can cause forelimb lameness if it becomes an established habit.
Box-walking, where the horse perpetually walks around the perimeter of the stable is an obsessive-compulsive habit that can lead to health problems, including uneven hoof wear, muscle atrophy, and even lameness.
Also, horses, especially youngsters, tend to copy each other. So, if you have one horse in a barn of stabled animals that continually exhibits undesirable behaviors, there’s a good chance that others may pick up the habit too.
6. Chill out!
Highly strung horses often become short-tempered and even aggressive when kept stabled for long periods of time.
That behavior is often born out of frustration and can result in problems for handlers when the unhappy horse is being groomed, tacked up, and tied up.
Horses with that kind of temperament can also become difficult to ride, as they are full of pent-up energy that would otherwise be burnt-off out in the field.
7. Respiratory health problems
Constant exposure to a very dusty environment can lead to the development of Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), a chronic condition that causes coughing and other breathing problems. A common source of dust is forage and bedding.
Hay should be soaked to remove dust or the horse should be fed dust-extracted forage or haylage instead of hay. The barn should be well-ventilated, ideally with an extractor fan system. However, fans designed to cool and aerate the barn should be positioned so that they don’t stir up the air, creating a whirlpool effect that can cause dust to rise, making the problem worse.
Try to avoid using straw, which can be very dusty. There are many forms of dust-extracted bedding available, including specially treated shavings that are a better bet than straw for horses that are stabled for long periods.
Also, the fumes given off by ammonia that’s produced by urine and decomposing manure can damage the horse’s airway. If you have ever cleaned out a deep-litter bed, you’ll know that ammonia is incredibly caustic and unpleasant to breathe.
If your horse is standing in an atmosphere that is heavily contaminated by these fumes, he is at risk of developing pneumonia or RAO.
Related Read: About Your Horse’s Respiratory System
8. Digestive health
Horses that live outside at grass tend to have fewer episodes of colic than those that are stabled.
The University of Nottingham carried out a study, which suggests that stabled horses may be more prone to colic due to a lack of exercise and movement which slows the natural action of the gut. Low gut motility can lead to impacted colic, which is seen less often in horses that live at grass and have the freedom to roam.
Slow gut motility can also contribute to Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), a debilitating condition that is often associated with racehorses and other horses that spend much of their time stabled. It’s also thought that the mental stress of long-term stabling also contributes to EGUS.
You can guard against these gastric problems by introducing new feeding regimes gradually and ensuring that the horse has access to fresh, clean water, 24/7. If your stabled horse is inclined to be colicky, reduce the concentrate ration and replace that with low-calorie forage.
In the wild environment, horses are trickle feeders, spending much of their time grazing. That’s essential for the horse’s gut function, so you must try to replicate that by providing plenty of forage for the horse to munch on while he is stabled. That can help to keep the horse relaxed, which reduces the likelihood of his developing EGUS.
Finally, mobility increases the horse’s metabolism and stimulates gut motility. Also, light exercise increases the digestibility of fiber and promotes greater fluid retention too, both of which help to ward-off impaction colic.
So, even if the horse cannot be ridden and is stabled, you should still take the time to walk him out in hand.
Related Read: About Your Horse’s Digestive System
9. Heavy weather
Some owners insist on keeping their horse inside if it’s raining or cold. Horses are actually waterproof!
If you have a thin-skinned horse that feels the cold, try to avoid clipping him during the winter months, and be sure to provide him with a good-quality, waterproof, windproof rug that fits him properly so that it doesn’t leak or slip if the horse rolls.
Horses that live out 24/7 will benefit from access to a field shelter so that they can get out of the worst of the weather if they want to. Remember that you will need to provide clean bedding in the shelter, as well as hay or haylage to supplement your grazing during the winter months.
Clearly, if your fields have a tendency to get very muddy or waterlogged, you may need to limit the amount of time that your horse spends turned out to reduce the risk of him developing mud fever or rain scald.
If the weather turns extremely cold and your fields are frozen rock hard and ice makes the ground slippery, it may be safer to restrict turnout to a sand ménage or similar until the ground softens.
Horses are happiest when living in the company of other horses, even if that only means being able to see companions over a fence.
If a horse is to be kept stabled for long periods, he should at least be able to see other horses in adjacent boxes. If two empathic horses are stabled next door, ideally, they should be able to touch noses or even groom each other. That will go some way toward satisfying the horse’s instinctual social nature.
11. Performance issues
Interestingly, studies carried out at Virginia Intermont College showed that pasture-kept horses remained fitter than those that were stabled.
The pastured horses traveled twice the distance than the stabled horses with night time paddock turnout. Also, the horses kept at pasture had a greater increase in bone density, which was significantly different from the horses that were kept stabled.
Horses that are kept stabled except for exercise and schooling sessions are more prone to stiffening up than those that are turned out. That’s especially true of older equines who have osteoarthritis.
Tying-up and other muscular issues are another common problem that is seen in stabled horses but occurs less in those who are turned out.
12. Growth and development
Keeping young horses confined to a stable for long periods can impact on their musculoskeletal development, especially the joints.
Pasture playtime allows the youngster to achieve submaximal joint loading, helping to build strong joints and reduce the risk of cartilage injury.
For example, a yearling that is kept confined to a stable with little or no turnout is more likely to develop contracted tendons, as a result of an imbalance between growth and exercise.
The bottom line is that normal weight-bearing exercise in the form of turnout is essential for the normal development of the young horse’s limbs.
What about confinement due to injury?
Vets do prescribe box-rest sometimes when a horse is injured. However, some injuries do better when the horse has time at liberty as part of his recovery therapy, and your vet will be able to advise you on when this is suitable.
For example, post-arthroscopic surgery, or bowed tendons do benefit from turnout exercise during the final stages of the horse’s rehab period.
Obviously, you don’t want your horse to gallop flat out around a 30-acre field, so turnout should be restricted to a small paddock and you should always follow your vet’s advice
Why do some horses live-in?
So, why do some people insist that their horses should be kept stabled with little or no turnout?
Obviously, there are some livery yards that don’t offer turnout, for example, if the yard is in a city setting. Some yards like to preserve their grazing for the summer months, so they close their fields during the winter until the ground dries out.
However, there are a few reasons why some owners choose to keep their horses stabled 24/7.
- The horse is very valuable, and the owner will not risk a field injury.
- It’s more convenient to keep the horse on a yard, rather than spending time bringing in and turning out.
- The horse suffers from severe sweet itch or fly allergies and is, therefore, more comfortable stabled during fly season.
- Ponies and horses that are prone to laminitis may be better kept inside for part of the year to prevent them from gorging themselves on lush grass during the spring and summer months.
- It’s much easier to manage the diet of a stable-kept horse, which is very important for those with weight gain problems.
- Grass-kept horses in certain areas are more likely to succumb to grass sickness than stabled animals, especially during the spring. Also, many poisonous plants emerge at that time of year, so some owners feel more secure if they know exactly what their horse is eating.
- If the horse is entire, the owner may not have the necessary facilities to turn him out.
How often should you turn your horse out?
So, how often should you turn your horse out?
Ideally, horses should be allowed to roam, graze, and socialize at liberty for at the very least part of the day or overnight if conditions dictate. However, every horse is different, and the individual’s needs, health, and circumstances should be taken into consideration by the owner.
Horses that are confined to a stable for long periods can begin to display undesirable behaviors and are at risk of developing respiratory, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal problems. For that reason, it’s essential for your horse’s mental and physical wellbeing that you integrate some turnout time into his routine.
How long does your horse spend turned out in the field and how many hours a day is he stabled? Tell us what works for you and why in the comments box below.
- How to Keep Your Horse Happy When Stabled
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