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.