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 is crucial to your horse’s health and well-being.
What Is Turnout?
Turnout is the act of taking a horse from its stall to a dedicated pasture or field. Turning out your horses on a regular basis allows them to maintain their health through exercise, play, and social interaction with other horses.
Blood circulation is essential for hoof health, and horses may not get enough exercise standing in a stall. Standing in bedding soiled with manure and urine can also lead to hoof 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.
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).
Horses are intelligent herd animals and will grow restless and bored if confined individually indoors for long periods of time. A horse may entertain itself by chewing stall walls. Cribbing is a stereotypic behavior as a way to cope with stress in which a horse places its top incisors onto an upright object such as a fence post or stall door and arches its neck 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.
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.
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.
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 can also increase your horse’s risk of pneumonia or recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). 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.
Bored, energetic horses that are kept in stalls may not only develop troublesome vices, but they may also misbehave as they find creative ways to burn off excess energy. Horses may act out by kicking at stall walls, snapping at by-passers, or 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.
Holzhauer, M. et al. Cross-Sectional Study Of The Prevalence Of And Risk Factors For Hoof Disorders In Horses In The Netherlands. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, vol 140, 2017, pp. 53-59. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.prevetmed.2017.02.013
Swollen Or Filled Legs: What’S Wrong With Your Horse? - Kentucky Equine Research. Kentucky Equine Research, 2020
Mazzola, Silvia et al. Efficacy Of A Feed Dispenser For Horses In Decreasing Cribbing Behaviour. Veterinary Medicine International, vol 2016, 2016, pp. 1-6. Hindawi Limited, doi:10.1155/2016/4698602
Williams, S. et al. Investigation Of The Effect Of Pasture And Stable Management On Large Intestinal Motility In The Horse, Measured Using Transcutaneous Ultrasonography. Equine Veterinary Journal, vol 43, 2011, pp. 93-97. Wiley, doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.2011.00399.x
Yngvesson, Jenny et al. Health And Body Conditions Of Riding School Horses Housed In Groups Or Kept In Conventional Tie-Stall/Box Housing. Animals, vol 9, no. 3, 2019, p. 73. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/ani9030073
Staving Off Boredom In Stall-Bound Horses - Kentucky Equine Research. Kentucky Equine Research, 2020