by Laura Crum
This post is in response to something that just happened to some friends of mine. I want to put it out there because it exposes the very real danger presented by a common horse keeping practice. This practice is “normal” for many folks, who will also tell you it has great benefits. It is something I don’t believe in, and I have once again been reminded of the reason why.
My friends have a very classy horse program. They have a big barn and a couple of beautifully fenced, well maintained pastures. Their riding horses are stalled at night and turned out in these pastures during the day. Sounds great, right?
Well, maybe. Last week, one of their gentle geldings kicked another and broke his leg. The injured horse had to be euthanized. The people were heartbroken. And this sort of injury is far more common than most folks seem to be aware.
These two horses had been pasture mates for years. The odds are they were only playing, but no one knows, since no one saw the incident. The owners came home to find the one horse three legged. The vet they use is my friend, and when we were talking about how sad it was he said something to me which he had said many years ago. And I never forgot.
Most of the broken legs he sees occurred when a horse was kicked by another horse while loose in a field or corral. Very often the horse which did the kicking was wearing hind shoes. And almost always this occurred in a situation where the horses were not constantly loose together.
I have turned my horses out over the years and I still keep my retired horses turned out in a pasture. I have never had a serious injury, knock on wood. But these horses are out together 24/7—I very carefully avoid any taking them in and putting them back out stuff. When I turned my riding horses out, I put them out on grass for a few uninterupted months and then put them back in their corrals to begin riding them. I 100% do not agree with the practice of continually separating horses and then turning them out together again. It is a recipe for injuries. Particularly if the horses wear hind shoes. I absolutely will not turn out any horse with other horses wearing hind shoes.
Now I know many folks will pooh-pooh this and say they have done the turnout thing for years with no ill results. And that’s exactly what my friends said when we were discussing this one day. But now they have lost a horse. And though I am very sad for them, and for anyone else who suffers a serious horse injury this way, I have to say that the frequently stated reason for this practice—its so good for the horses—does not cut any ice with me. Its good for them until they get badly hurt. And then its not so good. And they do get badly hurt. I have known upwards of half a dozen horses among my own acquaintances that suffered broken legs this way. Let alone all the other injuries I’ve heard of due to being kicked in turnout time. I have personally known two horses that were killed when they were driven through the fence by an aggressive pasture mate (not my horses—belonged to friends).
People often justify daily turnout in a group by saying that horses “naturally” live in herds and work through these herd dynamics. The truth is that horses in a consistent herd situation develop a comfortable hierarchy. They are together all the time, and they move around a lot. They very rarely need to contest things, and even their play is just some friendly galloping around. I have observed this often with my pastured horses.
Contrast this to the daily turnout routine. The horses are separated and penned up every day, giving each horse the chance to frown at his neighbor from a safe little stall and ponder whether he might actually be the tougher horse. Then he spends twelve hours getting zero exercise. When turn out time comes around he has plenty of pent up energy and perhaps some ideas about world domination. And all this has to be re-sorted out with his herd. Even if the horses know each other well and are only playing, under the daily turnout regime, the play is often very rambunctious. And horses do get hurt.
In my own case, I keep my horses in big corrals—about 100 by 100, with run in sheds for shelter. One horse to a corral. They are separated by pipe panels. Every horse can touch another horse and play “bite face” through the panels. Every horse can run and buck and play as much as he wants to whenever he wants to. All the horses interact as a herd, going down to doze under the oak trees together, lying down next to each other in the sunshine. But they can’t kick each other.
I turn these horses out on my property to graze most days. But I turn them out one at a time. Turn out time is grazing time. And because they can run around whenever they want and are not balls of pent up energy, they are quite happy to munch grass for a couple of hours, thank you very much.
I realize that I have the luxury to arrange things the way I want because I keep my horses at my own place. And if you board you may not have that luxury. And its certainly better to turn horses out once a day than keep them penned up in a stall 24/7. But I would be very careful about daily turnout with a group. I have seen too many injured horses due to this practice.
Probably many people will not agree with me on this, and that’s fine. But the grief my friends are feeling and the serious injuries I’ve seen and heard about prompted me to write this post. If you do choose to use daily turnout in this way, you should at least be aware of the downside and know the risks of what you are choosing.
I’m happy to hear other opinions on this subject—fire away.