There are many health benefits of turnout for horses. From time to play, move and interact with other herd members, to having access to more natural types of forage, it’s easy to see why horses do better outside than in. However, unfortunately for some, time outside poses risks to health such as laminitis, sweet itch, UV damage and other related conditions. Ultimately, turnout is a balancing act for many horse owners. However, with the many benefits associated with turnout, it’s absolutely worth considering how best to maximise the time any horse spends outside.
This article looks at four benefits of turnout for horses that can be considered for all, whether on grass, in a turnout arena or starvation paddock at any time of day.
The first of our four points towards the benefits of turnout for horses is mental health. Turnout is a part of horse routine which can condition their mental health. Not only does it mean horses are in their natural environment, and free to roam and graze as they please, but it also provides the perfect opportunity for some social interaction.
As herd animals, social interaction with other animals of their species is essential to the horse. Grooming, playing, and even just being in one another’s sight, reduces stress and can increase the circulating mood-boosting hormone, dopamine. Therefore, allowing this time for horses to relax with their field-mates is essential for their well-being. It will also help alleviate behavioural problems caused by poor mental well-being, such as depression and aggression.
Feeling more secure, with other horses in close proximity, they will also be able to get better quality sleep. Quality sleep can only be achieved when horses lie down, and they won’t do this without at least one herd-mate on guard! Better sleep equals better brain functioning, allowing them to process information better, reduce stress levels, and learn better too.
With turnout comes the increased opportunity to move as well. Horses are naturally roaming animals and have adapted to be able to travel long distances every day. When they are stabled, they cannot walk or roam. It is thought that the restriction of movement in a stabled environment is partly to blame for the development of a ‘box-walking’ vice.
Movement is vital for the health of joints, therefore comes as one of the benefits of turnout for horses. When horses move, it allows the transport of vital nutrients in and out of the tissues between joints. The tissue between the horse’s joints acts like sponges, so when body weight is put on a joint, anything the tissue does not need is squeezed out. As the weight is lifted off the joint, new and essential nutrients can flood back into the tissue. This mechanism helps to maintain the health of the joint structures and can help repair any damage.
The obesity epidemic has also been blamed on the modern horse’s regime, which sees increased periods of stabling. Overweight horses are more susceptible to the development of joint conditions, such as arthritis, which can be extremely painful, reduce performance and require expensive treatment. Allowing periods of turnout and movement can help weight maintenance and loss, when diet is controlled simultaneously. Controlling the diet whilst grazing may include the turnout on shorter grass, turnout in a smaller area, or turnout for shorter periods. Owners could also consider using a grazing muzzle.
For younger horses, who are still developing, turnout is essential. Research has shown by adding turnout into a young horse’s routine, can increase the strength of bones and tendons. The development seen with turnout was similar to that of improvement with enforced exercise. Plus, there is less danger of over straining the young horse’s body, which can cause detrimental effects.
Turnout will be a ‘breath of fresh air’ for many horses too. In the stabled environment, horses are exposed to multiple small particles, which they inhale. The particles come from everyday materials in the horse’s regimes, such as bedding and forage, and can seriously impair breathing. The enclosed stable space can be especially bad for horses who are already suffering from respiratory conditions, with vets normally prescribing a field life for those who are. The continuous inhalation of small particles may increase the risk of horses developing chronic respiratory conditions but normally becomes evident in short-term coughing and spluttering episodes during ridden exercise. Stabling can also increase the risk of infectious disease spread, due to the close proximity to other horses.
The inhalation of ammonia from their own urine is not good for the horse’s respiratory health. Owners can feel the effects of this natural chemical whilst mucking out; burning in the nose, eyes and/or throat. Ammonia damages delicate tissues in the respiratory tract, increasing the likelihood or severity of respiratory conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Ammonia has also been linked to eye irritation too.
Gut health is also affected by long bouts of stabling. Reduced intestinal motility in the stable, compared to pasture, is a consequence of the lack of movement the confined environment enforces. The lower the horse’s intestinal motility the higher the risk of colic. Movement of intestinal muscle is vital to push gas and food material through, and without it, there is the result of impactions and gas build-ups. Impaction colic can also be caused by horses who opt to snack on their beds.
Providing turnout out reduces gastric ulceration risk as well. Although many owners choose to give their horse’s a diet including ad-lib forage, this may be hindered by the speed our horses eat. Additionally, the yard environment can be particularly stressful for horses, putting them off their food until they feel safe. An appropriate field environment is much more suited to those prone to ulcers or with a nervous temperament, to encourage consistent grazing behaviours.
When considering increased turnout to aid gut health, ensure that it is gradually introduced into the horse’s regime. Sudden changes in routine are one of the major causes of colic in horses. Make sure the turnout environment is as stress-free as possible too, providing field companions and familiarity, as stress is also a leading cause of colic, as well as equine gastric ulcer syndrome.
For those worried about their laminitis-prone ponies, although continuous turnout may not be appropriate, steps can be taken to allow some turnout with a reduced likelihood of developing the disorder.