Talk To Me About Turnout

Photo courtesy of TPH Staff.

BY TPH Staff

Nope – we’re not looking for tips on getting the shiniest boots and whitest saddle pads. We are looking to spark engagement and conversation about the role turning horses out in paddocks or pastures plays at your barn. 

Horses as we know them today certainly have a different lifestyle than before they became domesticated. Their lifestyles changed to make the lives of their owners and caretakers more convenient. 

That “convenience” to humans of keeping horses in stalls or tight quarters can come at a price to the horse’s physical and mental well-being – even if the horses receive daily exercise under saddle. 

Can we let horses be horses? 

Horses were designed to be nomads – used to constant motion, wide-open spaces, and living on a diet that their bodies were designed for (FORAGE!). They are also herd animals who enjoy the companionship of other horses and can display many signs of stress (mentally and physically) if kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. 

What kind of turnout do the horses in your barn experience?

  • A few hours a day in a small paddock?
  • Limited due to an intense travel schedule for showing?
  • 10+ hours a day in large, luscious fields?
Photo courtesy of TPH Staff.

Mental health benefits

Don’t you feel better after a walk through your neighborhood, or an early morning bike ride to clear your mind? The same can be said for what a few hours of turnout can do for a horse’s mind. The exercise or release that horses receive when turned out is much different than the release or exercise they get from a light hack or a 15-minute spin on the lunge line. In both of those instances, they are still under someone else’s command. When horses are turned out, they can just be horses. They can let their minds wander – and can stretch out their bodies however feels best for them. 

For most horses, any form of turnout can prove to be a great stress relief. They can get out pent up energy (hopefully safely), take some deep breaths, and simply enjoy fresh air. And nothing feels better to a horse than a good roll!

As noted earlier, horses are herd animals. Most horses enjoy the company of their kind. They develop friendships with horses just as people develop friendships. Turnout also teaches horses social skills. They learn their place in the pecking order. 

Obviously, there are those horses who prefer the solo life (just as humans can prefer). They might turn into a semblance of Lucifer when paired with other horses. 

Turnout helps with boredom. Horses can develop bad habits (biting, weaving, wood chewing) or simply become nasty to be around when they have to spend prolonged periods of time in their stalls. Do you notice a difference in your horses’ behavior when they are on a regular turnout routine? Are they quieter to ride? More agreeable? Overall more pleasant to be around?

Physical health benefits

The physical health benefits that come as a result of horses being turned out on a regular basis are plentiful! 

Let’s start with hoof health. We’ve all heard the saying “no hoof – no horse”. Did you know the function of the horse’s frog is to pump blood? This is much easier for the frog to achieve when the hoof is in motion and the hoof’s heels are expanding and contracting. Not only does movement support the function of the frog, but it also promotes healthy hoof growth.

The benefits of regular turnout to proper gastro-intestinal health are vast! A horse’s GI tract was designed to continuously process forage (grass!!). Allowing a horse regular access to plentiful, quality forage is a great way to promote gut health. The freedom of movement for horses when turned out also helps to keep the GI tract functioning properly which ultimately can reduce the risk of colic. 

We know that ulcers can show up in horses for a multitude of reasons. Stress is a big reason for the genesis of ulcers in horses. Regular turnout can help relieve stress that can cause ulcers. Ulcers can also result from irregular diets – or consumption of too many processed, concentrated feeds and not enough quality forage.  This is where the importance of good grass in well-maintained paddocks or fields can once again help promote a healthy GI tract. 

Moving onto the circulatory system, it’s common sense that a horse that has the freedom to move around regularly will have a healthier heart and consequently a more functional circulatory system. It’s harder for the circulatory system to work on a sedentary animal. 

Closely tied to the circulatory system is the respiratory system. The benefits of turnout for the lungs is a no-brainer. Think about it from your perspective – would you rather breathe fresh air, or air laced with scents of ammonia and manure? Keeping clean, fresh air entering the lungs is another way turnout can contribute to overall optimal physical health.

Regular turnout can also contribute positively to your horse’s overall fitness level and skeletal/muscular health. What happens when a human sits on the couch eating snacks all day? The same thing that happens to horses who are confined to stalls all day with an all you can eat buffet of hay. Your weight increases and your muscle tone and strength decreases. Getting horses turned out for even a few hours a day can aid in maintaining an ideal fitness level for the performance arena. The movement when turned outside can help keep joints and muscles loose and prevent stiffness that can be felt under tack. It’s hard for humans to go from sitting still to a full out run. The same is true of horses. Horses will be happier and feel better if they have an opportunity to be turned out for a few hours before their work shift begins under saddle.

Photo courtesy of TPH Staff.

Letting nature take its course

No one wants to hear that their horse has sustained a major injury that will require months of stall rest and rehabilitation. That can be draining financially and can be time consuming. In many cases, there are options to simply turn your horse out and let nature take its course. Will field rest take longer to get the same result as a schedule of stall rest and rigorous rehabilitation might take – certainly a possibility. But will it be easier on both you and your horse – absolutely! Sometimes letting nature take its course to heal a horse’s injury can be the best medicine. There are times when “pulling shoes and kicking them out in the field” is the best solution.

Planning your schedule around turnout time to improve YOUR quality of life

“A happy horse makes for a happy rider.”

So true! 

Knowing that horses (in general) enjoy their turnout time, do you ever plan your day around your horse’s turnout? Do you ride them AFTER they’ve had time to play and stretch outside? 

Do you have the opportunity to show close to home so that perhaps your horse can spend the night outside before heading to the show? If so, does this have a positive impact on their performance at the show?

Likewise, do you make it a point to ship your horse back to the barn as soon as your time in the ring is done so that your horse can rejoin their buddies in the field that evening? 

Recognizing challenges

We know that there are a lot of variables that can have an impact on the amount of turnout a horse can receive:

  • Metabolic issues that coincide with grass intake
  • Limited access to land
  • Your horse is a “jumper” and not in a good way
  • The land you have access to is either a mud pit or has way too many rocks on it
  • Fencing conditions where you board scare the dickens out of you and you’d rather NOT turn your horse out
  • Your horse “does not play well with others” and therefore can only be out in a small pen, or only turned out for a short period of time
  • “Injury-prone” is your horse’s middle name

These challenges are definitely not ideal, and some of them cannot be overcome. But if you think about your horse’s daily routine, behavior, and even way of going – are there elements that could be improved upon with the help from a regular turnout schedule? You might be amazed to see the positive changes added fresh air and sunshine can make on your horse!