Dressage Today - - Content - By Ciera Guardia, DVM

The Risks and Ben­e­fits of Turnout

Proper turnout for dres­sage horses can be a dif­fi­cult and of­ten scary topic for dis­cus­sion. Many dres­sage fa­cil­i­ties don’t al­low ex­ten­sive turnout. Some top dres­sage horses get al­most no turnout. The fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment in th­ese horses can make turn­ing them out into a larger field ter­ri­fy­ing for the owner, who fears the worst. Will the horse come back in one piece? Will he still have all his shoes?

Turnout for a horse has a lot of ben­e­fits. Just as for us hu­mans, fresh air, light and ex­er­cise im­prove well-be­ing. It gen­er­ally makes a horse more con­tent and happy. Many top dres­sage rid­ers have dis­cov­ered the ben­e­fits of turnout, in­clud­ing the men­tal break it of­fers the horse, es­pe­cially when he is in stress­ful train­ing or fre­quently trav­el­ing dur­ing show sea­son. I al­ways tell my clients that the horse needs time to be a horse. Just like you need time to de­com­press after a stress­ful day at work or need a sooth­ing shower after a hard work­out, horses need their time in the pad­dock to roll, gal­lop, snort and whinny. Rolling, buck­ing, kick­ing out and all other ac­ro­bat­ics your horse may dis­play in his field can make you hold your breath as you watch (or cover your eyes), but th­ese nat­u­ral move­ments help him stretch sore, tight mus­cles, re-align his spine and help his res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem clear arena dust. All of this pro­motes healthy mus­cle re­pair after ex­er­cise. It’s im­por­tant that horses are still al­lowed to be horses when the time is right.

Turn­ing out your horse pro­motes health­ier, more reg­u­lated diges­tion, as it al­lows the stom­ach to pro­duce less gas­tric acid and de­creases the pro­duc­tion of gas­tric ul­cers. The di­ges­tive sys­tem of all mam­mals is dif­fer­ent and is de­signed to func­tion based on the an­i­mal’s nat­u­ral diet and en­vi­ron­ment. Be­fore do­mes­ti­ca­tion, horses roamed free and grazed con­tin­u­ously for 24 hours per day. Their stom­ach is rel­a­tively small, as they are de­signed to in­gest small meals through­out the en­tire day. Most horses who are man­aged in a stalled fa­cil­ity are fed two to three times per day, as this is what is fea­si­ble for man­age­ment. This re­sults in larger meals to en­sure the horse’s nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments are met.

On the down side, when you turn your horse out, the risk of in­jury is ar­guably higher. In­juries can oc­cur when he is pas­tured on un­even sur­faces, in deep foot­ing, wet sand, mud or slick sur­faces. Also, if he is turned out with other horses, herd dy­nam­ics and hi­er­ar­chy can present risks for fight­ing to es­tab­lish dom­i­nance.

How long should a horse be turned out? This de­pends on his in­di­vid­ual needs and the con­di­tion of the turnout area. If the horse has no in­jury to re­ha­bil­i­tate, most do well with longer turnout, even 24 hours a day. The re­duced turnout time in most board­ing and train­ing fa­cil­i­ties is usu­ally due to a larger num­ber of horses than the turnout space ac­com­mo­dates, so turnout is ro­tated. Also, many horses may do bet­ter with night turnout or day turnout, de­pend­ing on their in­di­vid­ual health needs. Some may have dif­fi­culty sweat­ing or have res­pi­ra­tory is­sues that ne­ces­si­tate less turnout time than av­er­age horses. If the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture is too hot or too cold, this can cause the horse to uti­lize his en­ergy cool­ing or warm­ing him­self, which can lower his en­ergy to train and per­form.

If you sus­pect your horse is prone to meta­bolic is­sues, such as in­sulin re­sis­tance or Cush­ing’s dis­ease, he might re­quire re­duced or no graz­ing to main­tain his health. Ex­ces­sive weight gain, poor hoof health, poor hair coat or even lamini­tis can be signs of un­der­ly­ing meta­bolic dis­ease. Con­sult your vet­eri­nar­ian about th­ese con­cerns. There are many tests that may be per­formed to de­ter­mine th­ese di­ag­noses and best treat­ment plans.

Turn­ing out your horse pro­motes health­ier, more reg­u­lated diges­tion.

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