Why Turnout is Important for Your Horse

Why horses are happier and healthier outdoors

Horse galloping in grass
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Horses are healthiest and happiest outdoors in their pastures. There are a number of reasons why your horse should be outside as much as possible. Although many horses will clamor to come into a stable during nasty weather, it’s important that they live outdoors as much as possible.

Sometimes keeping your horse confined in a stall is necessary, such as when a veterinarian prescribes stall rest. Other than that turnout (being outdoors) is crucial to your horse’s health and well-being.

Hoof Health

Blood circulation is essential for hoof health, and horses may not get enough exercise standing in a stall. Standing in manure and urine can also lead to problems like thrush and white line disease.

Hoof growth and strength may be compromised if horses are left to stand in a stall for long periods of time, especially if the bedding is left damp. Exercise encourages natural hoof growth.

Leg Health

Horses standing in stalls may develop stocked up legs, which is a condition where the legs swell, usually below the knee joints. It's noticeable on all four legs and dissipates when the horse is allowed to move around (which is how to determine whether it's stocking or an injury causing the swelling).

Leg injuries occur when horses that are frustrated about staying in kick stall walls or hay feeders. Impatient horses can hurt their front legs by pawing and wear their hooves unevenly.

Boredom

Horses are highly intelligent animals and will grow restless and bored if confined indoors for long periods of time. A horse may entertain itself by chewing stall walls. Cribbing, another side effect of boredom, is a habit where horses stick their teeth into an upright object and arch their necks back while inhaling. The horse may walk the perimeter of its enclosure, known as stall walking, an obsessive-compulsive habit that can lead to other health problems (if a horse is stall-walking constantly, it's not eating or resting).

While not all of these so-called "vices" are solely caused by stabling, keeping a horse indoors, where it will be bored and unable to expend energy can exacerbate any bad habits the horse may have.

Companionship

Horses are herd animals. Keeping horses separated in stalls, where they are not able to see and interact with each other can be very stressful. Outdoor pasture, even if horses are kept in separate paddocks but can still see each other, is better for the mental health of your horses. Being allowed to run or trot with other horses is even better.

Digestive Health

Horses who live outside tend to have fewer episodes of colic than horses who are kept in a stall. A University of Nottingham study suggests that stalled horses may be more prone to colic and that the lack of movement slows the motility of the gut, leading to impaction colic, which is similar to low motility issues suffered by sedentary humans.

Horses that are outside with room to roam tend to develop colic less often than stabled horses. The same slowed motility that can lead to impaction colic in stabled horses may contribute to equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), a painful gut condition. The mental stress of being stabled for long periods of time may also play a role.

Respiratory Health

Ammonia fumes that develop as manure, bedding, and urine decompose (a process that takes a surprisingly short time), can damage your horse’s airway. Ammonia is caustic and is not only offensive to smell, but it can also increase your horse’s risk of pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Dust also can increase your horse’s susceptibility to chronic inflammatory airway disease.

Even in a well-ventilated barn, stale air can cause problems. Horses breathe easier outdoors.

Behavior

Bored, energetic horses that are kept in stalls may not only develop troublesome vices, they may misbehave as they find creative ways to burn off excess energy. Horses will act out by kicking at stall walls, snapping at by-passers, chewing or biting anything within reach. 

When being handled an energetic, bored horse may try to bite its handler, paw and kick out when tied or have a hard time standing still to be groomed or saddled.

When it comes time to ride, you will find your horse may act out by pulling, bucking, or being inattentive to your commands. Horses that can move naturally outdoors are more relaxed and have less pent-up energy, which may make them easier to handle and ride.

Weather and health issues can make the stable the best place for your horse sometimes. But allow your horse as much turnout time as possible.