While the mantra for real estate success may be location, location, location, when it comes to horses I think the most important element of a boarding facility is turnout. Like pasta, horses need space to move around. It’s good for their joints and good for their minds.
My horses are extremely lucky (IMO), as they live in pastures that are close to two acres each and never are stalled. They have a run-in shed for when the weather is too hot, too rainy, or too cold, but unless it’s very hot out, they mostly prefer to be out in the elements.
Not all horses need turnout. Just as well because many horses spend much of their time in a stall and still seem to stay sane. However, it’s a little bit like asking a human to live in a cubicle, then come out and perform as an elite athlete.
I’ve been lucky to live in parts of the country where barns have plenty of turnout. And, for the past 16 years, I’ve also been able to let them live out 24/7. Freedom was the one who convinced me it was essential. The first night I had him, I put him in a stall. By the morning he’d rubbed a bloody spot on his neck because he weaved continuously over the Dutch door. That was the last time I kept him in overnight. These days, as his 23rd birthday approaches, the turnout helps keep him sound as well as sane.
Research shows that horses turned out all the time move around a lot:
Patty Graham-Thiers, PhD, of Virginia Intermont College, evaluated confinement’s effects on fitness of middle-aged (14-year-old) horses separated into three groups. She and colleagues found that pastured horses and stall-kept horses with nighttime turnout in a small paddock that were in an exercise program demonstrated improved fitness. (More details on the study can be found here.)
Over 24 hours, pastured horses traveled twice the distance (detected on GPS) of those with only nighttime paddock turnout, averaging 6.7 miles; those in stalls, with or without exercise, went 2.8-3.2 miles. Also, pastured horses had a larger increase in bone density, significantly different from exercised/nonexercised stalled horses. (The Horse)
Zelda is less picky. She likes being out, but when I took her to Vermont, a few summers ago, she adapted to being in a stall overnight just fine. The barn did indulge her by turning her out all day, even though their other horses didn’t go out that long.
Of course, some of this is out of a horse owner’s control. There are places where turnout is at a premium. In those situations, a regular work schedule and long, slow warm ups can be essential to keeping your horse happy and limber.
There are also horses that don’t enjoy being out all day. They might be bothered by the bugs or heat, or just prefer the quiet and comfort of their stall. These are horses that might hurt themselves when they get frantic.
The mismatch comes when horses that need turnout, or who are used to more unstructured time, don’t get it. This can result in behavioral issues.
Raf Freire, PhD (animal behavior and welfare), of Charles Sturt University, in Australia, says, “In common with other social animals, (horses) experience behavioral problems when isolated and confined. Our recent study showed that stabling does not meet horses’ needs for exercise, resulting in expression of high levels of activity when given the opportunity to exercise. This ‘rebound effect’ indicates that stabled horses are frustrated by the inability to exercise.” One hour of exercise per day was sufficient to relieve frustration in Freire’s study horses, but he stresses that the absolute time out of the stall is not the critical factor; what a horse is able to do while outside appears equally, if not more, important.
Freire added, “A critical finding in our study is that continuously stabled horses were more likely to misbehave during handling and trailer loading, for example. This has important implications for horse and rider safety since the majority of riding accidents are due to horse misbehavior.”
In fact, when buying a horse, a change in turnout can make a huge difference in the way a horse behaves so it’s always important to consider a horse’s previous environment when moving them or choosing a barn.
What do your horses like? A cozy stall or acres to run?