Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
Do you prefer to keep your horse stabled, or let him go out on his own? To keep your horse happy and healthy, weigh the pros and cons to his turnout schedule.
(c) Amy K. Dragoo
It’s a raw day with the threat of rain. You have decided to forgo your ride, and are staying out of the weather. Your horse is also snugly in his stall, surrounded by a large pile of hay. Maybe he doesn’t like this place.
Three experienced horse keepers were asked to give their opinions on whether horses should be kept in stalls or in the field. It’s not surprising that their programs differ, but they all want their horses to be outside as much and as often as possible, even in the colder weather. They explain why they do this and give some suggestions on how to find the right balance between barn and field time for your horse.
Barn managers and owners are more likely to spot health problems in horses if they can lead them into and out of the pasture. If a horse is not walked daily, injuries and illnesses are often overlooked.
(c) Frank Sorge/Arnd.nL
Turn Him Loose
Karyn Malinowski PhD, professor in animal sciences and founder of Rutgers Equine Science Center, New Brunswick, New Jersey, says that “staging is more of a human thing than it is a horse thing.” Too often, horses spend their time working and then resting in a stall. This schedule is designed to be convenient for owners, trainers, and riders.
Rutgers’ research horses are outdoors all year, in paddocks and fields with run-in sheds. Dr. Malinowski states that horses are not allowed to be outside unless there is a reason. “Being outside helps horses stay happy and health,” Dr. Malinowski says. Horses evolved to roam over large areas and often travel 10 miles per day to graze.
However, not all situations in the horse world require round-the-clock attention. Camie Heleski is a senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky’s Equine Science and Management Program. She currently keeps her two horses in pasture 24 hours a day. She says that her horses’ mental health is “perhaps the best it has ever been.” She admits that they are overweight and their coats have been sun-faded. They also have chipped hooves.
Camie used to show her horses in the past. They were out in the pasture for 12 hours per day, and then in boxes stalls for the rest of the day. She says that her horses stayed in winter at night, while in the warmer months, they were in box stalls during the day. “For night turnout I used a fly repellent designed to kill mosquitoes as well.” This split schedule allowed horses to eat roughly half of their daily diet and made it easier for them to receive supplements and medications.
John and Beth Manning have a lesson and boarding barn at Biscuit Hill Farm, Shelburne, Massachusetts. Horses are out all day, and then stalled for the night. Beth states that “living out all the day is not a good idea.” “We empty our barn every morning except Christmas and New Year’s Day. The horses then come back in for dinner.
Each horse is inspected daily by the daily schedule. Horses can become ill if they are left alone. Beth says that if you take a horse into the barn, you’ll notice any problems. The farm is situated on a hill so the horses gain fitness while moving around the paddocks. Turnout all day helps older horses to stay limber and counters the effects of chronic arthritis. It also promotes hoof health. She says that almost all school horses can go out barefoot, and because the horses aren’t cooped up, there are few behavioral problems.
Horses could be hurt while frolicking in pasture alone or with a friend, but most horses who live in a herd learn to take care themselves.
(c) Frank Sorge/Arnd.nL
But What about…
Numerous studies support the positive effects of large turnout. Numerous studies have linked pasture time with benefits such as stronger bones, improved respiratory health, reduced colic risk, and lower stress levels. There are some downsides. There are some downsides, but they’re usually manageable. These are your main concerns:
Injuries: Horses could get hurt while frolicking in the field. However, experts who spoke to us said that horses that go out regularly learn to take care themselves. Horses who are constantly stalled are more likely to release their excess energy. To minimize injury risks, make sure turnout areas are securely fenced and free from debris, holes, and other hazards. Beth says that horses riding barefoot are less likely than horses riding on snow-covered or frozen ground. Horses should wear winter shoes with studs and borium to grip in these conditions.
Weather Although you may feel it’s too cold/too wet outside, your horse is capable of coping with all weather conditions. Dr. Malinowski states that there is no weather condition that a horse should be indoors. Horses can be out at Biscuit Hill in all weather conditions, including rain, snow, lightning, and even extreme conditions such as a blizzard. Beth says that in the hottest weather, we might shorten the timeout and bring the horses back early. Each horse may require special consideration. Camie says that horses can be affected by their ability to deal with cold weather if they are old, sick, thin, or have a very short hair coat.
She adds that a little effort can overcome some less serious concerns about turnout. These are some of them:
Shoes lost: Horses are more likely to leave shoes in the field than they are in their stalls. It is possible to keep his shoes on if he follows a strict shoeing schedule. Bell boots can also be used. The problem can be solved if the horse is able to go barefoot.
Inconvenience Your horse will not be waiting in the barn for you when you arrive to ride. However, your perspective may determine whether this is a good thing. Camie says, “My horses’ pasture covers approximately 40 acres. It’s often a long trek to get them. This is good exercise for me.”
Beth believes the risks of turning horses out outweigh their benefits. Yes, horses do get dirty. She says, “Yes, the horses get dirty. But, I’ll take a dirty and happy horse over one that is clean but cooped up every single time.”
Horses enjoy being around other horses, especially when they are turned out. You can ensure your horse is safe in group turnouts by being attentive to herd dynamics and providing multiple water and food sources.
(c) Paula Da Silva/Arnd.nL
Alone, or with his friends?
Research shows that horses are most comfortable being outdoors when they are with other people. Camie explains that horses benefit most from being outside in groups because it gives them the opportunity to meet other horses and fulfill their social needs. She says that horses are highly motivated and valued for their social interaction, which includes the possibility for mutual grooming. Horses in groups are more likely to exercise than horses with individual turnout. These horses are easier to handle and train, according to a few studies.
There are some caveats. Dr. Malinowski points out that horses love to go out with their friends, but they can be aggressive when first assembled. When introducing horses to a group, you need to be careful. You should use common sense to ensure that your horses are grazing in groups with similar ages, sexes, and activities. Cross-fencing allows horses with disabilities, illness or injury to be removed from larger groups and facilitates the introduction of horses.
Because of the possibility of serious kick injuries, Beth will not allow a horse wearing hind shoes to go out with other Biscuit Hill horses. She says horses settle their pecking order quickly once they are put together, just like other experts. Horses that harass one another should be separated.
Dr. Malinowski points out that established group dynamics can change over time. She says Lord Nelson, a former Rutgers campus police horse and resident equine personality, died in 2015 at the age of 42. He had shared a paddock with a mare for many years. She says that they were best friends, but he got weaker and she became more aggressive. They had to separate.
If dominant individuals force horses to move away from shelter, food, and water in the field, they can lose their condition. This can be prevented by providing multiple hay racks as well as water sources. However, horses may need to have their own feeding times to ensure that they get enough. Camie points out that low rank can have other consequences. Camie recalls a mare that was submissive to her group of horses and wouldn’t lie down in the pasture. Camie says that if she was out all day, she would get cranky and she never had the chance to sleep deep. To rest, the mare had to be brought in to a stall.
Camie states that anecdotally, people will claim that individual turnout is safer for horses and has less chance of injury. She also says that horses who live in groups can become herd-bound, which is anxious about being left alone. This problem is avoided by individual turnout.
Stabilizing a horse for long periods of times can cause stress and lead to certain vices such as chewing (above), clawing, or weaving.
(c) Frank Sorge/Arnd.nL
Sometimes, it is necessary to keep horses in. He might have been stabled at a show site where turnout is low or zero, or he may be disabled from illness or lameness. A tendon injury, for example, will require stall rest and very limited exercise. Horses are fine with a day or two of turnout, but they can be very uncomfortable if there is a long period.
Dr. Malinowski says that horses get used to the barn, but there are also health risks. A barn can pose a danger to horses, despite the fact that you may be concerned about injuries to the turnout. Poor ventilation and dust contribute to respiratory disease. Research has shown that horses who are kept in stalls have a reduced gut motility and a higher risk of developing colic. Stall life can also be stressful for horses and herd animals. This stress can lead to stall-walking (weaving), repetitive pawing, and other vices that can cause problems for horses. You can take steps to reduce the risk if your horse has to stay in.
- Place him in a stall so he can see, hear, and touch noses with horses that are compatible. Dr. Malinowski states that horses need to be able to see one another.
- Get him moving every day or more often if possible. Exercise is important, unless he has a medical condition that prohibits him from doing so.
- To keep him busy, give him plenty of hay and barn toys (if possible). If your dog is a bit larger than usual, you could put the hay in a slow feeding net that makes it a little more difficult to obtain.
- Keep the dust to a minimum. Keep dust down by opening barn windows. Further dust reduction can be achieved by steaming or soaking hay before it is fed.
Turnout may cause stress in horses that have been kept for a long time. Dr. Malinowski said that horses can be stressed by novelty of any type. She notes that horses who are kept at the racetrack may need to be allowed to relax and graze outside for a while. It is a good idea for horses to be gradually eased into turnout. Also, it’s important to watch them closely at the beginning. She says that horses are happier and more healthy when they’re out of the saddle.
Essentials for Outdoor Living
Access to water is essential for your horse’s health. Although they are popular, automatic waterers can be expensive and should be checked every day.
(c) Stacey Wigmore/Arnd.nL
These are the basics for your horse to be happy and healthy in the field.
Water. Beth Manning, Biscuit Hill’s water manager, says that water is vital. If you have a stream that runs year-round on your property (and it isn’t polluted), that might be sufficient. Otherwise, you will need to maintain stock tanks and waterers in each paddock and field.
Shelter. Horses require shelter. This means protection from rain, wind, and sun, but it doesn’t need to be extravagant, Dr. Karyn Maliniowski says. Although run-in sheds can be great, a line of trees could provide shelter, shade, and protection from the wind. She adds that horses sometimes need shelter less than people might think. “Our research horses will standout in the rain even though the sheds are available if they choose.”
Munchies. Horses need to graze, so they have forage to eat. Horses need forage to keep their digestive systems healthy and prevent boredom.
Maintenance. Beth states that the more horses out, the more important it is to rotate pastures and monitor for parasite risk. Pastures should be mowed, dragged, and sometimes resown. Manure must be scooped out of paddocks. You’ll need to do less stall cleaning in order to make up the difference.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!