Horses have evolved to spend their days moving over large distances while grazing, traveling to water and escaping predators. As a result movement is highly beneficial to their bodies. More turnout leads to increased bone density, increased strength in tendons and ligaments, better lubrication of joints, and improved fitness just for a start. Increased circuation helps to increase the strength of horses’ feet as well as movement of lymph fluid (minimizing stocked up legs). Movement and continuous grazing are very important to the health of the digestive system. It helps keep the digestive system moving (and as a result reduces chances of colic) as well as lowering the likelihood of ulcers. More movement and increased circulation means muscles are more toned and less likely to become stiff after a ride. I definitely notice a big difference in regular clients at horse shows as opposed to at home where they receive more turnout time. Horses with plenty of turnout develop fewer vices such as cribbing, weaving and pacing because they are able to burn off some nervous energy and are more stimulated (especially when turned out in a group). I have noticed a huge decrease in windsucking in my mare since her days at the track. She may do it a few times a day now, where as before she was windsucking more than she wasn’t. There are also benefits to the rider. Horses with more turnout tend to be calmer since they don’t build up as much excess energy making them less likely to require lungeing before riding, even after a few days off.
Unfortunately turnout in the Lower Mainland is somewhat complicated. Cost of land is incredibly high and the large horse properties around here are about 20 acres. It also rains a lot. Small parcels of land and a lot of precipitation leads to pastures getting torn up and as a result even the larger training barns are able to offer only seasonal pasture turnout. I am always impressed with the amount of turnout available in other in other areas of the country. In Ontario and Alberta, for example, properties are definitely bigger (as in hundreds of acres in some instances) and it is much more dry. Even horses who receive individual turnout, usually have access to a grassy (or snow covered in the winter) field year round.
Here we have to get creative. I do keep my horse at a barn where she has year round group pasture turnout during the day. The property she is boarded at is very dry for our climate (some very good drainage work was obviously done). I do sometimes worry about injuries from other horses when a new member joins the herd, however, over 10 years of group turnout, the injuries have been minimal. Very recently, when a new horse moved in, one of the existing herd members got very protective of her and my mare ended up with some bites under the saddle which required a few days off, but that has been her worst injury in a very long time. In her case, the benefits of group turnout far outweigh the risks.
Not every horse plays well with others (often due to lack of socialization at a young age) and not every horse owner is comfortable with the risks of group turnout and certain horses can’t be turned out on grass (those at risk for laminitis for example). Turnout can be improved without turning each horse out in a herd though. Bigger paddocks and more frequent feedings can help simulate grazing. Slow feeders are also an excellent option for many horses. As they help mimic grazing they keep food in the stomach over extended periods of time reducing the damage from stomach acid and also diminishing boredom as well.
Many horses do much better in an in/out situation over a few hours in a paddock every day. Even though these paddocks are often smaller, they do help keep the horses moving to some degree all day.
Some people even go as far as to set up a few ‘feeding stations’ in their horse’s paddocks to help increase movement, these are particularly helpful with older horses who are not ridden anymore.
It is true that the horses we ride are not the same as their wild counterparts. They would likely not do well living in the wild, nor would they want to. My mare loves coming into her stall at night and wants her bucket to be scrubbed daily, she would not make in the wild for long. At the same time, there is a happy medium between 24/7 turnout on hundreds of acres and the life of many show horses who hardly ever leave the barn. Ensuring our horses receive sufficient turnout isn’t just more kind to the horses though, it is also beneficial to us as riders who want happy, willing, partners who remain physically and mentally sound for a long time.