Horses are the happiest and healthiest when they can roam outside, but it is not always possible to give them the time and space they need. Just like humans, horses need to socialize, exercise and spend time outdoors for their physical and mental health. Rolling, bucking, and kicking helps your horse stretch sore or tight muscles, re-aligns their spine, clear the respiratory system, promotes muscle repair, and aids with healthy digestion. Once the social hierarchy is established in a herd, horses are mentally stimulated in turnout together. Keeping a consistent schedule, mixing up younger and older horses and separating by gender, are all general rules to keep in mind for the safest turnout.
Considering the financial investment involved with top competition horses, it can be terrifying to imagine an injury occurring to your horse in turnout. Many equestrian facilities do not allow extensive turnout for competition horses to reduce the risk of injury. This means that most horses spend a substantial amount of time in their stalls, but this can be detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing.
In most instances, the benefits of turning out your horse are worth the risk. The majority of horses enjoy turnout, but you must balance the pros and cons and determine what is practical for your situation, always ensuring your horse is safe, healthy, and happy. If you want to turn out your horse more often, there are a few factors to consider and herd behaviors to keep in mind.
Horses are natural herd animals, so there will always be a social order that must be determined. A dominant horse will emerge, and the rest will find their place in the pecking order over time.
Horses determine dominance on their own, which can involve kicking and/or biting, but these are threats rather than actual harmful behavior. Be mindful of the herd dynamics and hierarchy, as fighting is just the way to establish dominance. Once the order is determined, horses can comfortably turnout together. Because of their natural herd mentality, it is mentally stimulating for them to turnout together.
Introducing Horses Properly
Professionals recommend introducing horses over fences first before turning out together. Allow them to be loose and not influenced by handlers. Leave for a period of time as this will enable horses to sniff each other, back away, graze and gain more information about their prospective new field companions.
Of course, the risk of injury increases when you turn your horse out in a herd, but there are ways to minimize this risk. First, make sure the footing is firm and dry to avoid accidents. If you introduce a new horse to the herd, you should do this gradually and under supervision. Allow any new horse to turnout alone first and get familiar with the surroundings. Then, introduce each horse one by one. Eventually, allow them all to turnout together.
When returning from turnout, be sure to check your horse over thoroughly, on both sides. Check to make sure no wounds or bite marks appeared and that no shoes are missing. The best way to prevent injury is to watch your horse carefully during turnout with the herd. When introducing horses, remove the hind shoes to prevent injuries from kicking. It’s also a good idea for you to wear a hat and gloves to keep yourself safe from injuries.
Time of day
Turn a herd out during the daytime soon after feeding to minimize stress and aggressive behavior. During the daytime horses can see each other and the space they are in. After mealtime is the best opportunity for socializing because horses won’t be anxious about food and will be in a better mood to spend time together. Ultimately, a consistent routine is key. If horses are turned out at night, keep that schedule the same, as changing from daytime to night-time will confuse them and they will re-establish pecking order.
Be mindful when feeding horses in a herd and remove horses from the paddock if they are being fed individually for their safety, and your own. If leaving forage, ensure that enough space is left between each pile for herds that are newly integrated to avoid fighting. It is also worth leaving one or two extra piles so that any horses at the bottom of the hierarchy have somewhere to move if they are chased off by horses at the top of the pecking order.
Consistency is Key
The best way to ensure good behavior is to have a consistent turnout routine for your horse, depending on their turnout style and patterns. Turnout after exercise and in warmer weather is best. Adding hay or slow feeders to turnout time can help a horse feel settled and comfortable.
Appropriate Boots and Halter
When turning out your horse it’s important to have the right boots and halter for their protection. Protect your horse’s legs and use bell boots. If you must leave a halter on to catch your horse, it should be leather or nylon with a leather breakaway crownpiece, but not 100% nylon. Brushing boots can protect the lower limbs from minor cuts and abrasions but boots that don’t fit properly can rub or damage legs if left on for too long. Overreach boots are useful for preventing against shoes being pulled off, although not guaranteed as the boots main aim is to avoid overreaches from a hind hoof.
Remember, every horse is different. Behaviors will vary in turnout, as some horses can display anxiety or fear, while others can be calm, yet others can play too roughly. Ultimately, experts agree that herds will establish a dominance hierarchy within a few hours. You will see some kicking and hear some noises, but that is normal behavior. Be sure to supervise your horse during turnout, be mindful of any new changes introduced in the herd and make adjustments based on your horse’s personality.