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.
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