The Turnout Taboo: How Much Is Right for Your Horse?

It’s a common myth that many show horses are not turned out for fear of injury or blemish. While this is largely exactly that – a myth – there is much to consider when determining a horse’s turnout needs and schedule. After all, a horse is a significant investment, so protecting that investment is important. This vigilance, however, should not come at the expense of your horse’s welfare and happiness.

“Horses should have as much turnout as they are content with,” says grand prix dressage rider Eiren Crawford, of Aidrie, AB. “However, I have had horses injure themselves significantly in turnout just because they decided it was too hot or there were bugs or whatever reason.”

Despite the inherent risk that comes with turnout (these are horses we’re talking about, after all), Eiren does her best to give her horses as much time out as they need. The best way to reduce risk of injury? Group turnout, she says.

“I prefer group turnout if possible,” explains Eiren. “I think horses are a bit ‘dumber’ when they’re out by themselves. If they lose their mind, they don’t reset themselves, whereas with the herd, if one is running like an idiot, another horse is going to stop them and then they relax. But when they’re by themselves, they sometimes don’t make good choices.”

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Grand prix show jumping rider Lauren Fischer, from Bedford Hills, N.Y., agrees that horses should spend the amount of time outside that they’re comfortable with. While some, if not most, horses tend to thrive on hours outside, she says it’s important to be cognizant of a horse who may prefer shorter turnout time.

“A lot of barns believe that horses need to be turned out for six hours at a time, when that’s not always the case,” says Lauren, 20. “If they like that, by all means, leave them there all day, but a lot of them don’t. And that’s where a lot of injuries happen in the paddock – when people leave their horses out there incorrectly instead of doing it based on what their horse likes.”

A lot of injuries happen in the paddock when people leave their horses out there incorrectly instead of doing it based on what their horse likes.

Of course, not all riders are able to dictate their horse’s schedule. Even if a horse is boarded, though, it’s still imperative for the barn manager or other caretakers to be watchful of impending trouble.

“When I was a boarder, I had a horse run crazy in turnout, and nobody cared enough to catch him,” recalls Eiren. “He had a significant injury that took almost a year to rehab.”

Not all facilities offer much in the way of turnout options either. If options for boarding and turnout are limited, Lauren says, hand walking and hand grazing are good alternatives. “If my horse doesn’t turn out, I hand graze a lot,” she said. “If I’m around for a full day and I ride in the morning but they don’t get turned out for some reason, I’ll go and hand walk in the afternoon so they’re out of the stall more than once, at least.”

And there’s nothing to take away from having a stall, even if the horse is turned out for the majority of the day or night.

“I do believe as they get older, horses like to have a stall,” Eiren explains. “They like to have that peaceful, quiet place where they can sleep and relax and they don’t always have to have one eye open. In the field, their instincts kick in and they’re always going to be on alert. When some of these top athletes are working – jumpers or dressage horses, event horses – they need to be able to just lay down and sleep peacefully, and really relax mentally and physically. Some horses need more time inside.”

Plenty of horses are kept outside 24/7, on pasture board. While these horses have access to shelter in most cases, they aren’t likely used to being confined, aside from the limits of the pasture fencing. A pasture-board horse may have a higher risk of injury in a situation where they must be confined for a period of time, say after a weekend horse show.

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Other horses, such as off-track Thoroughbreds, come from situations in which they receive little to no turnout. In this instance, it’s usually unwise to just turn them loose in a large pasture for the first time. Be smart – introduce turnout to a new horse incrementally, in an increasingly larger space, and pay attention to their body language for signs of anxiety or fear.

The balance between letting the horse rest and recuperate to as close to how they naturally would and managing the risk for injury and well being is one that even the best trainers struggle with at times. In these scenarios, it’s best to listen to and observe your horse and do what you can to provide a comfortable routine – even if it looks a little different.

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