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Keeping Horses "Out"
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Keeping Horses "Out"

It's a statistical fact that the majority of the UK's horses are kept stabled for part, if not all, of their lives. Most owners who compete seriously would never consider keeping their horses at grass 24/7 and could not imagine life without a huge stable knee deep in shavings, an indoor arena, a horse walker, a wash stand and a solarium in which the dry their horse after exercise.

But what would your horse choose if he had a say in the matter of where he lived? I suspect the answer would be; a well-managed field with shelter and shade and ad-lib hay during the winter when the grass is scarce. After all, horses are designed to live out. Their physiology demands the freedom to wander, trickle feeding as they go and in fact the horse's gut needs this in order to function efficiently. Movement stimulates the digestive tract to pass any forage ingested along its length in a never ending cycle which cannot be replicated in a stable kept horse.

A horse has a tiny stomach relative to its size and it is not designed to be filled with starchy, hard to digest feed several times a day. Long periods of inactivity and starvation between feeds cause chaos with the horse's digestive system and can cause bolting of food when feeding time arrives. Stable kept horses are, not surprisingly, more prone to bouts of colic as their digestive tract becomes sluggish and everything slows down. A bored horse will be more inclined to eat his bedding or chew the fixtures and fittings of his stable and vices such as wind-sucking, cribbing and weaving are much more commonly seen in stabled animals.

Ambling about a field also helps to keep joints mobile and prevents stiffening up in older horses and actually helps in maintaining fitness levels for animals in training. Legs are much less likely to fill following strenuous exercise and muscles won't stiffen as easily if a horse is able to wander around stretching as he feels necessary. It goes without saying that horses with dust allergies should always be kept outside if possible.

Horses are gregarious herd animals. They are happiest kept in small groups of both sexes and quickly sort out the pecking order without the herd. Social interaction is extremely important for a horse's mental well-being. They develop empathic relationships within their peer group; special "friends" who they will spend much of their day with. Everyone has watched two horses grooming each other and appearing to share the same blade of grass as they wander as one around their field. Keeping a horse stabled and effectively in solitary confinement is not going to make him happy and content. He will be much happier rolling in the mud and playing with his chums in a field.

Of course, keeping your horse "out" does not mean he can just be left to his own devices. You might save yourself the hassle of mucking out a stable twice a day but you still have work to do. If you have a field shelter, this will need regular maintenance and any bedding inside will need changing. Fields require good management including regular poo-picking and rotation to prevent poaching and allow the grazing to recover. If you do not have mains water supplied troughs, you will have to work out a system to ensure that your horses always have clean, fresh water available to them. If you don't have electricity, you will need to give consideration to lights (depending upon what times of day you are able to visit your horse). You will also need to think about where and how you are going to keep feed, forage, bedding, tack and other equipment and how you are going to transport what you need to the field.

During the winter time you must make sure that your horse has adequate rugs (with spares in case of damage). Extra feed may be required and you will almost certainly have to supplement what grass there is with hay or haylage. If your fields are inclined to become very wet, be wary of mud fever especially in horses with white socks and pink skin beneath. Summer brings its own problems in the form of flies, dust and heat. You must be able to provide your horse with some form of shade and relief from the attentions of flies and midges.

Unless you have some form of all-weather surface available to ride on, you may have to either sacrifice some of your schooling during the winter months or be prepared to transport him to a school you can hire. Don't forget though, you can still do plenty of work with him out hacking in between schooling sessions.

There are advantages and disadvantages to everything in life and keeping horses out is no different. Whilst keeping your horse out is undoubtedly hard work; a happy, healthy, well-adjusted horse makes it well worth the effort.

Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.

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  1. PonyGirl
    PonyGirl
    Nice article, as always! I much prefer keeping my pony horses in a pasture with a run-in shed for them to get under. They don't get silly and are much more ready to work when they've had a few days off, since they can burn off their excess energy on their own. When I was moving around with the races, my horses were turned out in the summer and kept in a stall on the track in the winter. (The New Orleans and Houston racetracks would have been too difficult to ship into.) By the end of the winter meet, my horses were showing small signs of strain in their legs. Once I got to Dallas or Shreveport and turned them out, their leg problems went away, all while doing the same amount of work. While being able to move around is important for humans and other animals as well, it's especially so for horses. One thing you didn't touch on is that the horse's foot is designed to help his heart pump the blood through his legs when he moves. The biggest problem with winter turnout here is having a place where the horses can get out of the rain. Once their coats soak through, they can get hypothermia just like us, even though our winters are relatively mild. One thing I have noticed though, horses seem to fight more when mares and geldings are pastured together. (Nothing drastic, they just stay skinned up more). Either all geldings or all mares seem to be a more peaceful arrangement, if you can manage it.
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    1. autumnap
      autumnap
      Many thanks! Some very interesting comments. I've been on yards where the sexes are segregated and some where they're turned out together. It all seems to depend on the personalities within the groups. Some groups of geldings fight all the time and one particular troublemaker ends up being removed and put out with the girls ... probably gets nagged to death as punishment! x
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      1. PonyGirl
        PonyGirl
        That reminds me of the time when I was galloping at a farm long ago. The track was located next to the broodmare pasture. We had one two-year-old stallion who was very obnoxious and study. One day he threw the boy that was galloping him, jumped the fence, and went tearing out after the brood mares. Boy did those girls ever school him! They kicked his little macho butt from one end of the pasture to the other. After that, he was much more well behaved and he wouldn't even look over at the brood mare pasture when he was galloping. LOL
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  2. spirithorserider
    spirithorserider
    Very good article! I've kept horses for 30+ years and without my own horse property, that has meant boarding out and every place is different. The mare I have now has lived in many different kinds of situations, but currently lives in a 24/7 pasture situation with shed here in Northwest Montana, USA. She is an alpha mare and placing her within a group hasn't always been easy, but she has her best friend now and things are very happy. She actually likes being in a stall from time to time, especially when it's very icy out and I don't blame her for that at all! But the condition she lives in now is so much healthier than being stabled all the time. I worked as a stable worker at this ranch for over a year (until I decided it was time to leave the work to somebody younger), but I can tell you about manging the pastures and the groups of horses and you are spot on. In all but the most special of cases, we keep mares and gelding separate. It does make for a more peaceable kingdom, especially when mares come into season. Keep up the good writing! Lots of good info to impart.
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    1. autumnap
      autumnap
      Thank you, that's really kind and encouraging. I do hope folk on here don't get fed up with seeing my name all the time though! I just love this site. There seem to be mainly people from the States on here and it's so interesting to hear how you do things over there! x
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  3. Michelle Jane
    Michelle Jane
    Yes! thanks!
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  4. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. Agreed! Turning them out is far better for them. Cookie has the option of going into an open door stall or an open end shelter, of course even in a down pour and high winds she prefers to be right out in it. lol!
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