Remember how it felt when you were released from school for summer vacation? Think about the prospect of running and playing for the whole day with no interruptions.
From a horse’s perspective, time spent out of the stall, and out of training offers a similar opportunity for renewal, both physical and mental. Winter is an opportunity for down time for most horses, as long as some care is taken to protect the horse.
Many owners often worry about their horses getting hurt when turned out. Turning horses out separately and putting on boots to protect legs and feet should ease owners concerns. Before turning horses out, watch them carefully and group horses of similar attitude together. Put playful horses out with other lively ones, while quiet older horses will be turned out together. It’s also important to make sure horses have a large enough area that they can get away from each other if they need to, in order to lessen the chance of anyone getting hurt.
Turn-out time is an important part of reproductive management, which includes mare care, care of breeding stallions, foaling services and sales preparation. The more often a horse gets the chance to act and live like a horse, the healthier he is both mentally and physically. Breeding stallions would prefer to be outside all the time, but since coat condition and appearance is important to attract clients, it is essential to have paddocks with generous shade trees to prevent sun bleaching, and that are well drained.
Yearlings and two year olds being prepared for the sales market benefit from turn-out time. Letting the babies be horses seems to improve their attitude and overall health.
Horses that are started into training in October should be given a month off around January, and all young horses in training should have time off at the beginning of winter. This allows the horse to mentally mature a little, as well as thrive a little bit more outdoors. Making turnout part of the training schedule may prevent stress and injury along the way. Many trainers believe time outside grazing helps prevent ulcers. If horses are turned out in a dry lot, give them something to do to eliminate boredom. Offer free-choice grass hay if there is nothing to graze.
Keeping a horse in a stall is hardly normal for a free-ranging herd animal. When you confine a social animal that naturally lives in a group and is built for continual grazing and occasional running, you force a herd animal to become an individual and also force a diet change. What you create is a pent-up horse on a high-energy diet but with less exercise available.
Many horses do well stalled. The key is finding the right mix of exercise so that he has the edge needed to perform, but is still enjoying life. If you have a horse that is fit, goes out and trains, comes back to his stall, sleeps well and eats well, you know he’s getting tired and this is positive. If he does this and has a good coat and a bright and active eye, those are signs he’s enjoying his job. A horse stays in condition better if he’s happy, eating well and sleeping well. You will also spend less money on supplements trying to get him to eat and maintain weight.
A horse that isn’t getting enough exercise to actually get tired and have a period of relaxation can become bored, dull and lazy, or develop a “caged” mentality, which leads to destructive vices such as cribbing, wood chewing, weaving, and stall walking. Stress can lead to physical manifestations such as weight loss, anorexia, ulcers, and horses that wash out before competition due to hyper excitement. How horses are confined plays a key role. Most horses are more relaxed in situations where they can easily see and communicate with other horses and realize they are not alone.
Fatigue, either physical or mental, causes injury. Short-term relaxation can give long time benefits and extend a career.