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 Ulcers

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]

Stalled horses who are fed a grain-based diet or do not have free-choice access to hay can go hours between meals. Intermittent feeding increases the risk of gastric ulcers as unbuffered acid in an empty stomach erodes the gastric lining.

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 cont