Modern domestic horses have very different lifestyles than their wild ancestors. While keeping horses in stalls is convenient for humans, confinement can be detrimental for animals who evolved to graze and walk throughout the day.

Turning horses out to pasture provides freedom of movement in a controlled outdoor environment. Regular turnout can improve your horse’s mental and physical health, even if your horse already gets frequent exercise under saddle.

While turnout involves some risk of injury, greater turnout time generally provides more benefits for equine welfare. However, the best turnout schedule for your horse will vary depending on their unique needs and preferences.

This article will review everything horse owners need to know about turning out their horses, including the benefits of turnout and how to keep horses safe in the field.

Benefits of Turnout for Horses

Turnout gives horses time to be horses. These animals evolved to live in herds while constantly grazing and roaming long distances.

Research shows that horses are happiest and healthiest with regular turnout. [1] Allowing horses freedom of movement and social interaction fulfills basic needs that support equine welfare.

A lack of turnout can lead to behavioural issues such as stereotypies, increase the risk of certain diseases and weaken the equine musculoskeletal system. [1]

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Digestive Health

Horses that do not get adequate turnout are at higher risk of gut health issues, including colic and gastric ulcers.

Colic

Multiple studies examining risk factors for colic found that stalled horses have a higher incidence of colic than horses living on pasture turnout. [2][17][18]

Turnout supports digestive health in horses by increasing intestinal motility, which refers to the movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract. [2]

Free exercise aids the contraction of smooth muscles in the intestinal wall responsible for transporting food through the gut. [2]

One study found significantly lower intestinal motility in stabled horses than those kept on pasture. The smooth muscles of the gut are stimulated less when horses are confined, increasing the risk of impaction colic. [2]

Gastric Acidity

Turnout can also support digestive health by encouraging grazing when horses are out on pasture. Chewing and swallowing boost saliva production, which buffers the gastric acid constantly produced by the horse’s stomach. [3]

Regardless of your horse’s lifestyle, it’s important they go no longer than 6 hours without food. Increasing turnout and access to forage is a straightfoward approach to protecting your equine’s gastric health.

Confinement can also increase stress levels in horses, contributing to gastrointestinal disease. [3]

Musculoskeletal Health

Different types of exercises on varied terrain stimulate adaptation in musculoskeletal tissues.

Bone is a dynamic tissue that remodels in response to the stress it undergoes. Research shows daily access to pasture turnout prevents bone mineral loss in horses. [4]

Tendons and ligaments also respond to increased exercise. Adequate exercise and rest can gradually increase ligament strength and collagen content of connective tissue. [5]

One study found that horses with more than 12 hours of turnout per day had a significantly lower incidence of soft tissue injury. These results suggest turnout can help maintain a baseline level of fitness that allows horses to handle demands better under the saddle. [5]

Free movement during turnout also helps maintain muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness. Data from another study revealed that horses on pasture turnout without forced exercise remained as fit as stalled horses participating in a controlled exercise program. [6]

Free movement is also critical for supporting joint health. Gentle exercise increases circulation and joint lubrication, which can help manage joint pain and stiffness in horses with arthritis. [7]

Turning out growing horses full-time also reduces the incidence of developmental orthopedic disease. [7]

Hoof Health

When the hoof meets the ground, pressure on the anatomical structures compresses veins and forces blood up to the leg. The veins decompress when the hoof lifts during movement, allowing blood to rush back into the foot. [8]

This functional anatomy allows hoof structures to act like a pump during exercise, increasing circulation and promoting healthy hoof growth. [8]

Confinement leads to poor hoof circulation, contributing to common hoof problems. Regular free exercise during turnout helps the hoof anatomy function optimally to maintain mobility. [9]

Respiratory Health

Dust and other airborne particles often accumulate in barns where horses are kept inside. These particles can irritate mucous membranes and lead to chronic inflammatory airway disease in stalled horses. [10]

Ammonia fumes from manure, urine, and stall bedding can damage the horse’s airways. Exposure to caustic fumes increases the risk of pneumonia and recurrent airway obstruction. [10]

Adequate ventilation can help improve air quality inside, but fresh air from outdoor turnout is the best way to support respiratory health in horses. Some horses with respiratory disorders have to live outside full-time to avoid irritants.

Mental Health

Studies link cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and other stereotypic behaviours to how much time horses spend stabled. These behaviours are associated with stress and often indicate a welfare issue. [11]

Research demonstrates that increasing turnout time can decrease the incidence of locomotor stereotypies. Turnout enhances psychological welfare by allowing horses to express species-appropriate behaviours and fulfill their innate desire to move. [12]

Horses that can’t expend energy and move freely during turnout may also display undesirable behaviours towards riders and handlers. Allowing horses to buck, roll, and run in a turnout area can make them safer to handle and quieter to ride.

Turnout Safety

Although regular turnout offers several health benefits for horses, it’s not without risks. Many owners are concerned about horses hurting themselves or others when turned loose in a field.

But proper turnout management and a safe environment can help limit the risks of injury.

Footing

Horses use turnout time to expend extra energy. So turnout areas must have safe footing to prevent horses from slipping or falling after a misplaced step.

Grass pastures are ideal for grazing but can become slippery when wet. And horses can quickly transform green grass into deep mud in high-traffic areas. Using heavy-use pads and topping these areas with blue stone dust or wood chips can help limit mud.

Horse owners should monitor field conditions and weather forecasts to determine if turnout is safe. All-weather paddocks and dry lots are safer alternatives for turnout in wet conditions.

Regularly walking paddocks allows owners to check for other footing hazards. For example, horses can injure themselves by stepping on rocks or in holes. Flat, dry, consistent footing is best for turnout areas.

Grazing

Grazing is a natural behaviour that promotes optimal digestive function in horses. However, not all horses can safely eat grass.

Fresh grass contains variable levels of hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HCs) at different times of the day or year and during different weather conditions.

HCs are composed of sugar and starch, and these components lead to increased insulin levels after feeding. Therefore, exceesive intake can contribute to metabolic and digestive issues. Pasture grasses are particularly high in HCs in the spring, following a frost. HC levels in pasture are also generally higher during the day than in the early morning. [19][20]

Horses with pre-existing metabolic conditions are especially sensitive to diets with high NSC content. [13]

It is important to manage grass intake, especially if your horse has metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, or PPID. These horses often require turnout on dry lots or grazing muzzles to manage their conditions. [13]

Poisonous Plants

Safe turnout also involves ensuring that your pastures are free of poisonous plants that can cause harmful reactions in horses. Examples of plants known to cause adverse effects in horses include: [16]

  • St. John’s Wort
  • Tansy Ragwort
  • Buttercups
  • Oleander
  • Bracken Fern
  • Nightshade
  • Poison Hemlock
  • Buckwheat
  • Bishop’s weed
  • Spring parsley
  • Alsike clover
  • Plum
  • Cherry
  • Black Walnut
  • Oak and Acorns

Horses that ingest these plants can develop serious illnesses, including liver dysfunction, photosensitivity, neurological problems and respiratory issues. [16]

Examine your paddocks for poisonous plants and use a commercially registered herbicide to control the growth of weeds. [16] Avoid overgrazing your fields so that horses have plenty of forage to consume and do not seek out poisonous weeds to eat.

Fencing

Common types of turnout fencing include wooden boards, PVC, and electric tape. The best option will vary depending on the kind of turnout. [21]

Turnout fencing should be clearly visible and tall enough to discourage horses from trying to jump over. Fences need to hold up to horses leaning on them but have enough give to prevent injury if a horse runs into them.

Small openings in the fence can cause horses to get their hooves or head trapped. Sharp edges or exposed nails can cause lacerations if horses rub against them. Regularly inspect fencing in turnout paddocks to identify areas needing repair.

Protection

Turnout boots can provide leg protection and reduce the risk of injury due to hoof impact or brushing accidents. However, wearing boots can increase the skin temperature, particularly when horses are exercising. [22] Heat under a boot can increase the risk of tendon injury. [23]

Bell boots help protect against heel strikes and prevent pulled shoes. Unlike brushing boots, these boots are safe for horses to wear overnight or full-time.

During the summer, horses may need fly protection to stay comfortable during turnout. Fly sheets and masks are ideal for day turnout but can rub when left on 24/7. Fly spray can also help deter flies.

Clipped horses need blankets to stay warm during turnout in cold conditions. But even horses who aren’t clipped can benefit from a rain sheet to keep dry outside during chilly, rainy days.

Group vs. Solo Turnout

Horses are herd animals that need social contact with other horses to feel safe and meet their behavioural needs. Group turnout allows horses to engage in play and mutual grooming behaviours.

Research shows horses in group turnout exhibit less stereotypic behaviours than horses in isolated living situations. Horses in herds also feel safe enough to lie down and rest in turnout. [14]

While many owners worry about horses hurting each other in group turnout, equine social interactions rarely involve violent behaviour. However, group turnout isn’t possible or practical for all horses. [14]

Some horses prefer solo turnout, while others can’t be turned out in a group due to behaviour or health issues. If your horse needs solo turnout, ensure he can touch or at least see other horses to help him feel safe and meet his social needs.

Turnout Schedules

Many factors go into determining the best turnout schedule for your horse. Owning your own horse is a significant investment, and turnout carries inherent risk. However, protecting your investment doesn’t have to come at the expense of your horse’s welfare.

How much turnout do horses need? Research supports turning horses out as much as possible for the greatest health benefits. But full-time turnout isn’t appropriate or feasible for all horses.

Your horse’s ideal turnout time will vary depending on age, workload, temperament, location, health conditions, and available facilities.

Full-Time Turnout

Full-time turnout is the most natural living situation for horses. Research comparing horses in full-time turnout to stalled and partial turnout groups found that full turnout provides the greatest benefits for bone density. [4]

This turnout schedule is suitable for most healthy horses and ideal for young growing horses. Living outside is also beneficial for horses that struggle with joint stiffness or respiratory issues. [10]

Horses often require a lot of space if turned out full-time on pasture, and frequent field rotations are often necessary to manage pasture health. Some horses are also difficult to catch from the field, and not all horses can cope with extreme weather while living outside.

Night Turnout

Research studies find significant benefits when horses are turned out for at least 12 hours per day. Turning horses out overnight is a convenient solution for maximizing turnout time while making horses easily accessible in stalls during the day. [5]

Night turnout is also ideal for hot, humid climates. Horses can stay inside under fans and away from the sun, bugs, and heat during the day while enjoying being outside during cooler night-time temperatures.

Pasture grasses also have lower HC during the night, therefore night turnout may be a good option for horses with metabolic concerns. [14]

Like full-time turnout, night turnout isn’t suitable for horses that need supervision.

Day Turnout

Day turnout allows owners to monitor their horse’s activity in the field. This turnout schedule is typical for valuable competition horses and those rehabilitating from an injury.

Daytime turnout schedules give horse owners peace of mind knowing their horses are secure in a barn overnight. During the winter, horses can stay outside while it’s warm and come in to escape inclement weather after the sun sets.

Even if you can’t leave your horse out all day, a single hour of turnout can improve behaviour and reduce stress in stalled horses. [14]

No Turnout

Sometimes, turnout isn’t possible due to health problems, space limitations, or horse preferences. Getting horses out of their stalls with controlled exercises such as hand walking or hand grazing can replicate some of the benefits of turnout.

Controlled exercise is critical for supporting tissue repair in horses rehabilitating from injuries. [15] If your horse is on stall rest due to a health concern, consult your veterinarian to determine the best exercise program for his recovery.

Nutritional Support on Turnout

Daily pasture intake across studies averages 20 grams of dry matter per kg of body weight. This is equivalent to 10 kg of dry matter (roughly 40 kg as-fed) for a 500 kg / 1100 lb horse. [24]

However, pasture intake varies greatly, with a range of 30 – 64 kg (66 – 140 lb) per day as-fed in the above studies.

Pasture intake for turnedout horses will depend on several factors including: [24]

  • Forage availability
  • Forage species and maturity
  • Time spent on pasture
  • Horse age, breed and gender

Average intake of a typical grass of 16% crude protein and 55% neutral detergent fibre (NDF) can meet the energy and protein needs of horses, even those in heavy work.

In fact, pasture intake can easily exceed the horses energy needs. For example, a horse at maintenance requires 16.6 mcal of digestible energy per day but will consume 23 mcal per day if given free-choice access to typical grass pasture.

This can easily lead to weight gain and aggravate metabolic concerns such as insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis.

Carefully monitor your horse’s body weight and body condition and adjust turnout and pasture access as needed. An ideal body condition is 5 on the 1 to 9 Henneke body condition scale. Pay attention to growing fat deposits in certain parts of the body, such as cresty neck, as this is linked to insulin resistance. [25]

Compared to conserved hay, pasture is better source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E. It also contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than hay. [24]

However, mineral levels will depend largely on the forage species, stage of maturity, and soil characteristics. Pasture will almost always be deficient in key trace minerals such as zinc and copper. These are critical antioxidants that support muscle function as well as hoof growth and joint health.

Horses can gain significant benefits from an appropriate turnout program, but will require supplementation of some key nutrients to achieve a well-balanced diet. Consult with Mad Barn’s equine nutritionists to implement a turnout program for your horse for free.

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Summary

  • Horses evolved to move and constantly graze throughout the day; turnout helps mimic their natural lifestyle.
  • Turnout time significantly enhances equine digestive, musculoskeletal, hoof, respiratory, and mental health.
  • Proper management and safety precautions can limit the risk of injury during turnout.
  • More turnout time provides greater benefits, but the best turnout schedule for your horse will vary depending on his unique needs and preferences.
  • Horses on a dry lot or pasture require mineral supplementation to achieve a fully balanced diet.

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References

  1. Lesimple, C. et al. Free movement: A key for welfare improvement in sport horses? Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2020.
  2. Williams, S. et al. Water intake, faecal output and intestinal motility in horses moved from pasture to a stabled management regime with controlled exercise. Equine Vet J. 2014.View Summary
  3. Hepburn, R. Gastric ulceration in horses. In Practice. 2011.
  4. Bell, R. et al. Daily access to pasture turnout prevents loss of mineral in the third metacarpus of Arabian weanlings. J Anim Sci. 2001. View Summary
  5. Reilly, A. et al. 143 Incidence of soft tissue injury and hours of daily paddock turnout in non-elite performance horses. J Equine Vet Sci.
  6. Graham-Thiers, P. et al. Improved Ability to Maintain Fitness in Horses During Large Pasture Turnout. J Equine Vet Sci. 2013.
  7. Moller, N. et al. How exercise influences equine joint homeostasis. The Vet J. 2017.View Summary
  8. Gerard, M. Anatomy and Physiology of the Equine Foot. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2021. View Summary
  9. Coffman, J. et al. Hoof circulation in equine laminitis. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1970.
  10. Ivester, K. et al. Investigating the Link between Particulate Exposure and Airway Inflammation in the Horse. J Vet Intern Med. 2014. View Summary
  11. Sarrafchi, A. et al. Equine stereotypic behaviors: Causation, occurrence, and prevention. J Vet Behav. 2013.
  12. Henderson, A. Don’t Fence Me In: Managing Psychological Well Being for Elite Performance Horses. J Appli Anim Welf. 2007.
  13. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  14. Werhahn, H. et al. Temporary Turnout for Free Exercise in Groups: Effects on the Behavior of Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls. J Equine Vet Sci. 2011.
  15. Davidson, E. Controlled Exercise in Equine Rehabilitation. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2016. View Summary
  16. Poisoning of Horses by Plants. OMAFRA. 2016.
  17. Curtis, L. et al. Risk factors for acute abdominal pain (colic) in the adult horse: A scoping review of risk factors, and a systematic review of the effect of management-related changes. PLoS One. 2019. View Summary
  18. Cohen, N. et al. Dietary and other management factors associated with colic in horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1999. View Summary
  19. Jensen, K. et al. Seasonal Trends in Nonstructural Carbohydrates in Cool- and Warm-season Grasses. Crop Sci. 2014.
  20. Kagan, I.A. et al. Seasonal and Diurnal Variation in Simple Sugar and Fructan Composition of Orchardgrass Pasture and Hay in the Piedmont Region of the United States. J Equine Vet Sci. 2011.
  21. Worley, J.W. and Heusner, G. Fences for Horses. University of Georgia. 2009.
  22. Westermann, S. et al. Effect of a bandage or tendon boot on skin temperature of the metacarpus at rest and after exercise in horses. Am J Vet Res. 2014. View Summary
  23. Hopegood, L. et al. The influence of boot design on exercise associated surface temperature of tendons in horses. Comp Exer Physiol. 2013.
  24. National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition. 2007.
  25. Fitzgerald, D.M., et al. The cresty neck score is an independent predictor of insulin dysregulation in ponies. PLoS One. 2019. View Summary