Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hidden Danger

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.


Anonymous said...

Your arrangement creates a "simulated" herd where the horses can interact and be together almost as if they were in a herd together. Most people, as you point out, don't have the luxury of that arrangement, either the horses are turned out separately with no way to contact another horse, and often for only an hour or two a day - this isn't really very good for most horses' mental health - or they're turned out in herds either 24/7 or for long periods during the day - I think this is healthiest for the horses but it can lead to injuries.

Our barn has a good but not ideal set-up - our horses are in daily (7 to 5) herd turnout with mares and geldings separate. No hind shoes are allowed - your point about that is a very good one as a shod foot can do a lot more damage than a bare one. I'd prefer 24/7 turnout but we don't have the facilities for it.

Injuries can and have happened, but fortunately there have been no fractures (the only one of those I've had happened with a horse in solo turnout). The highest risk times are when new horses are introduced and pecking orders are being established - luckily we don't have a lot of horses coming and going - and as you point out, at turn out and bring in times. It's important to have handlers who understand herd dynamics and keep their wits about them when handling the horses.

Very good points - your set up sounds ideal although I believe a true herd set up is marginally better for horse mental health and movement although less safe.

Dreaming said...

Thought provoking post....
I'm thinking you have a good point about the chance of a kicking accident escalating if horses are not always together. It does seem that if they have some time to collect their energy and even their frustrations, that there is a greater chance of an accident. But, I think another part of the equation is why we turn our horses out. If the horses are fed well while confined (and fed high-energy foods) then going out isn't about foraging - it's about frolicking. But, if the pasture time is about eating, perhaps the high-jinks don't happen as often. In my case, Pippin is a food hog. He will run out the gate, perhaps do a half-hearted "I'm free" kick, but within seconds his head is down and he is lost in the grass.

My fear is having horses kick at neighbors through the fence, and getting hung up. This happened in the first months with Pippin. He stood, with his hind leg caught about 3 feet off the ground, and put his head down and ate. Luckily we were there to cut him out of the fence before he decided to try to leave. I also worry about horses kicking through the bars in the paddock. Since mine like to play, I open their paddocks so they can be with each other. So.... am I inviting a problem by bringing them together... or stopping a problem by letting them deal with everyday frustrations before it becomes a big deal? Hmmm...

Recently I participated in a mission of mercy for a friend of a friend. Her mare was kicked and wasn't walking on a hind leg. The vet felt she needed to go to an equine specialist about an hour away. I brought my trailer over and we trailered the mare to the specialist. The mare had some bone chips around her hock. There was a 50-50 chance that surgery could fix it and she'd walk again. So far the mare is doing fabulously... but it could have been far worse. These horses are brought in at night, and stay in stalls with runs. They are out during the day. The same 'herd' each day. I'm not sure if any of the herd is shod - I suspect not.

It almost seems like this is a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation!

joycemocha said...

I can understand your feelings. However, I've seen too many cross-fence fights from horses who've been out 24/7 in neighboring fields to agree with the conclusion. It's one thing with geldings, another with very dominant alpha mares. My Sparkle mare (one of several extremely dominant alpha mares I've encountered in my life, another was Mocha's dam) occasionally took a dislike to a pony mare in her field who was on 24/7 turnout with her and was not shy about turning on this pony on a whim. We had to put this pony down because Sparkle injured her so badly during a period when we were swamped with work and school and weren't monitoring what was going on in the pasture as closely as we should have, beyond daily checks (we caught this pretty fast, but no one was around during long periods of the day, when Sparkle was attacking this pony). Yeah, we could have saved the pony, but she had other health problems (seizures starting up) due to things that happened before we bought her, and it was clear we couldn't put her back out with Sparkle, plus we didn't have a good alternative pasture available. Rather than take a chance that she'd find the right home, it was kinder to put her down.

Sparkle also fought with the neighboring mare, to the degree that we had to coordinate with the neighbors so that those mares were never turned out in adjacent fields, otherwise they'd fight over the fence (and through a three-foot deep, eight foot wide ditch full of water). We'd never dare to turn those mares out together, even in a huge ten acre field. Both mares were extremely dominant and fighters. They'd have been likely to kill each other in the initial battle for dominance, they were well-matched for size and speed. The only way we could have them close together was under saddle, and even then, the other mare would try to take a shot at my mare (Sparkle got more riding than the other mare because I was younger, bolder and didn't have kids, unlike the other mare's owner. So Sparkle had more schooling and was more obedient to me).

I've had a friend whose horse broke his leg just overnight in a stall for no obvious and logical reason, and this wasn't a horse that normally wigged out. Performance horse, on regular exercise and turnout (eventing horse, so very fit and very well exercised, also a very calm horse).

G turns out a mix of horses in the arena and in the paddocks with few problems of this ilk. However, he goes by personalities and temperaments, and it works pretty well. Most of the horses in the barn don't have hind shoes, and I really think that aspect is crucial. He is always careful to keep the obnoxious bossy alphas separated from direct turnout with others, too. I think that's a huge key. With short term turnouts, I think it's also important to be monitoring what's going on. In G's setup, he can watch what's happening either from the barn or from his house.

Another friend, with a history of mares on 24/7 turnout, has also had issues with mares getting witchy and driving each other through fences. No change in the herd to precede it, just hormones and something set them off.

But the overwhelming rule is that if a horse can find a way to hurt itself, it will. Stuff happens, and despite what we try to do to prevent it, something can happen. All we can do is take reasonable precautions and hope for the best. In my case, that means knowing the personalities of your herd and not turning hind-shod horses out with others.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I think being turned out 24/7 with other horses is truly best for horses, but if they are saddle horses, the problem of herdbound behavior when they are removed from the herd to be ridden often escalates if they are kept in a herd situation.

I don't think there is a perfect answer. My system is just the best I could figure out. I used to keep my horses turned out together in one large paddock, but I cross fenced it when I had a horse get kicked and be lame for a month. That horse is fine now (and this was many years ago), but I decided at that point that I simply did not want to risk the injuries. As you say, I suspect my horses were marginally happier when they were turned out as a true herd. They do seem pretty content the way I keep them.

Dreaming--Yes, I agree, its a bit confusing. I, too, worry that my horses will hurt themselves kicking through the pipe panels, but so far this has not happened. They do kick at each other through the bars, but I've had nothing worse than the occasional scrapes. I think what hit home to me about the risks was my vet telling me that being kicked by another horse in turnout was the commonest cause of broken legs.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--I was pretty sure there would be a lot of folks who would disagree with me on this one. And that's fine. It is a confusing part of horse keeping, and the fact that I don't choose to use this form of turnout and my friends lost a horse this way, does not constitute a "bottom line." It is a subject worth discussing, and I do think, as I said in the post, that its worth considering the risks when you choose how you manage your horses. I myself have not had problems due to cross fence fighting--and my horses do "play fight" over the pipe corral fences. I only have geldings and though some are more alpha than others, none is terribly agressive.

joycemocha said...

Laura--I think the rules really are different with regard to mares and turnout. Geldings can play more aggressively, but when it can be play with geldings, in mares they're usually deadly serious. I've only seen one gelding in G's barn who couldn't be trusted in turnout, a former Western Pleasure, Impressive-bred world champion that G categorized as a mean stallion but a tough gelding.

The really tough and aggressive alpha mares like Sparkle are a rarity, in my experience. They usually don't last long as pleasure horses or show horses unless they're high-end performance mares (Mugs's Sonita is another of this type of mare, I think) or in the hands of someone who understands them and doesn't mind getting tossed around. I wouldn't want another Sparkle in my life at this point--too hard for fifty-three year old me! Mocha's intensity under saddle is enough, I prefer that coupled with her docility when being handled on the ground. I always had to watch myself on the ground and in the saddle with Sparkle; while I have to always "be there" in the saddle with Mocha in ways I didn't with Sparkle, I sure appreciate the ground compliance. And while Mocha expresses her differences in opinion by going harder and faster, or running through the aids, she is nowhere near the intensity of bucker that Sparkle was. Sparkle frustrated easily and went to hard bucking fast. And she was very pushy on the ground. Now I wonder if I could have drilled better ground manners into her using a round pen--but I didn't know about that then. Nonetheless, I always had to watch her on the ground, because she'd chase humans as well as other horses. A potentially dangerous mare who had to be carefully handled and supervised. Again, not that common. Thank God.

I suspect that mares like Sparkle probably either working mares, broodmares or bucking stock. Sparkle, Annie (Mocha's dam), and my friend's alpha mare are probably the only three of this ilk I've encountered, and of those three, Sparkle was the only one used for pleasure riding. Annie was shown hard by a big name in reining and retired to broodie life (three foals), and my friend's mare was a working trail horse/broodie.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--You just summed up a lot of the reason I have geldings. So much easier to deal with (in general).

joycemocha said...

Laura, isn't it funny how that goes? I am a Mare Person. A lot of things that most people find endearing about geldings rather annoy me. I don't have a lot of patience for gelding goofiness or young gelding playfulness. I know people adore the playful mouthy behaviors, but it's just a PITA for me.

But give me an opinionated, sassy young mare who wants to trash talk and vie for dominance, and I'm happy. Nothing like a hard-going performance mare who's just switched "on" for competition. I'd probably feel different if I'd had to cope with the mare who loses her head every cycle, but so far I've been blessed with the mares who silent cycle and if anything get more intense about their work during their cycling.

I forget where I read it, but someone said this about mares: just like studs, they're entire horses and you have to take that into consideration when handling them.

I find I can get into a mare's head and understand her thought processes a lot faster than I can a gelding's. Just the way it is, I think. And I'll always choose the mare over the gelding or stud, all other things equal. Like I said, a Mare Person.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--I hear you. I am so much a gelding person--I can't overstate it. I am endlessly patient with geldings' very mild "stud-like" echoes as they test for dominance--though I'm quite comfortable setting them straight. And I have no patience for mares and what I perceive as their sillieness. I agree that people usually fall on one side or another of that line. I prefer female dogs, however, so I'm not just "male-oriented". But I think you raise a very good point.

Alison said...

I have to agree with "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't." Friends had a Thoroughbred in a great pasture by himself who broke his leg simply running. And think of the risks of trailering, taking your horses to shows, trail rides with horses/riders you don't know . . .the possibilities for problems are endless. We passed a broken down trailer on the side of the highway. Two people holding two horses right next to tractor trailers blasting past. My heart went out to them.

Minus Pride said...

Just got to read this post. Very interesting & thought provoking. My horse lives out 24/7 with another horse and they are great together. The other horse is my boyfriend's horse and it's usually only the two of us riding. Great dynamics and while they do have small "arguments", (knock on wood) i have yet to see a large argument. The gelding is the boss, the young mare is not.
On the same property, there's a boarding barn and horses do the in 12 hours, out 12 hours, and I do see a lot of serious arguments. Very interesting.

Laura Crum said...

Alison--You are so right about the endless unavoidable risks. But then, all of life is like that. I have been broke down with horses by the side of a busy highway, and it is no fun at all. I have hauled umpteen jillion miles in my life and I really have come to hate it. We still haul our horses fifteen minutes to the roping practice and it always makes me anxious. So, yeah, risk everywhere.

Minus Pride--I definitely think the daily turnout practice leads to injuries, as I said in the post. But its also perfectly true that horses get seriously injured in lots of unpredictable ways. Still, I would not choose daily turnout in a group if I had other options (besides leaving the horse in a stall or small pen 24/7).

Shanster said...

A connundrum for sure. I've struggled with this a bit wondering what to do... our horses (3) are kept penned at night in a large pen and they are penned now (springtime) to let pasture grass grow until May when they go out for increasingly longer periods of time until they are on all day turn out.

They all live together - we seperate the 33yr old at feeding time cuz he can't have hay anymore... but other than that, they live together 98% of the time.

The younger gelding started picking on my mare and leaving pretty good bite marks. And out in pasture he'd get a wild hair on a nice day when he felt like running and chase her around to distraction...

I was wondering if I should seperate them? Let them each have their own individual grazing time? Figure out a way to give them seperate runs? Didn't know the answer.

My trainer won't turn stalled horses out together - they go one at a time for grazing and to get their ya-ya's out.

So far I haven't had big injuries from this arrangement but I wonder sometimes...

When I notice my mare is getting bite marks, I'll let her in with the old gelding and leave the offending young gelding to himself for a night. Figure it lets the other 2 off the hook and provides a needed break here and there from his pestering.

Other than that, I don't really have any answers. Mine aren't shod and the young gelding seems to use his mouth more than his hind feet... so hopefully things will be fine. Fingers crossed!

As for the mare vs. gelding debate... I'm very much on the fence. My old man was a wonderful horse to have and learn from....and I'd ridden 2 other geldings before him. I'd always thought I was a gelding person...

Then I brought home my mare and while she can be opinionated, she is even tempered, has her head on her shoulders, is agreeable and I get along with her wonderfully - I never know when she's cycling so I've had good luck with her as my first mare.

The young gelding I have - thinking he'd be easy and calm - is not so calm and I don't have the best time riding him as he's always trying me. Not a great gelding for me... for someone... but not me! grin.

I'd have to say I'm up for either sex as long as their personality melds with mine and we can work together.

horsegenes said...

The only thing I would add to your post is if you have a horse with special shoes - bar shoes, sliders, etc. is do NOT turn them out. I do not understand what people are thinking when they take a horse with BIG DADDY SLIDERS on and turn them out into a dry grass pasture after they have been cooped up for a couple of days. Or bar shoes. It is a recipe for disaster. I get continual harassment from a couple of friends about "poor Semper" never gets any time in turn out. Poor Semper is sound and healthy because he gets ridden and hand grazed (when the grass is green) at least 4 or 5 days a week. He has a stall with comfort flooring and a nice sized run. He doesn't have any pulled tendons, broken legs or scars from running into fences either. (He does have a scar that he had when I bought him from getting kicked as a 2 year old - go figure)

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I totally agree that its the individual's personality that counts the most. There are geldings I loathe--and mares I know that are sweet. At this point, having owned and ridden only geldings for so long, I probably have a totally irrational prejudice.

As for the turnout thing, its a toughie. A group like yours that is together most of the time is way less likely to have problems than those who are turned out together once a day. But I tried keeping my son's horse turned out 24/7 with my Sunny horse in my biggest corral, and I could not stand all the bite marks on Sunny's hide. Had to separate them for my peace of mind. I guess its a lot about me not worrying...

kel--That is a really good point. My horses are barefoot, and though my boarder's horse is currently shod, they are "standard" shoes. I don't feel any of them are particularly at risk when I see them running and playing in the corrals. But certainly I've known of horses that got badly hurt this way, and the sliders would up the odds.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic Laura. I have to agree that is seems like horses are like children in a way. One different kid or one different situation can disrupt the group and send things out into orbit. For no apparent reason to the observer. It is in my experience very much a personality thing. I have two horses and two ponies at the present time. My older QH mare and the small pony share a paddock, 24/7 and the gelding and bigger pony have their own as well. My gelding just terrorized the older mare. The pony mare he is with now, loves him!!! Puts up with his crap and gives it right back and they are constant companions. The older mare does better with the pony but she really prefers to be by herself. When we sell the bigger pony, she will be. It's just like children and figuring out the seating arrangements in a classroom setting I would guess. Some kids work well together and others just work off each other.
When I did try separating them into their own paddocks, my gelding tried to jump the gate and he ended up busting the fence and peeling the skin on his back leg, right from his hock almost to his flank. And he was so lucky it wasn't a complete train wreck. Being by himself just made him crazy I guess.
I guess I'm trying to say that it's just an individual thing depending on the horse and on the stabling you have available to you. Wow, it can sure be confusing sometimes, can't it?

Funder said...

I am really not looking forward to boarding Dixie again. :(

It really is damned if you do, damned if you don't. I insist on not having her stalled - it's terrible on bare feet and unnatural on horse minds - but I hate turning her out with other horses. She's calmed down a lot in the last year, but about a year ago she kicked her pipe corral (at her last boarding place) so hard she dented it. A new horse across the 8' aisle was looking at her - how dare he!

We got kicked out of the private barn before that one. I am 99% sure it was just an excuse because the (very strange) owner was mad that I wanted to train endurance, not go on 2.5 mph walks with her. But she said Dixie was "too mean" to the other horses and had to go. No bite marks, no kicking. Dixie ran that pasture for sure, but she didn't need to kick or bite.

I wonder how much it costs to rent a private half-acre with hot fencing in the Bay Area? Probably as much as it costs to rent a house. Sigh!

Laura Crum said...

Lynn--I agree, its complicated. I haven't had any horses that were beside themselves if not actually in with other horses--the fact that all the horses can see all the other horses in my setup probably helps.

Funder--I boarded for years--I feel your pain on that one. I'm not sure I could go back to it. The boarding stable down the road from me does have some large corrals like mine (a friend of mine once rented one and kept three horses in it). I'm not sure how much they cost. But if you could find something like that, it might work for Dixie. And congratulations! I read about your latest ride and I am in awe. Seriously. The longest rides I ever did were somewhere between twenty and thirty miles, and I can't imagine doing fifty.

Laura Crum said...

And all-I was up at the practice roping today and a friend of mine just told me a story, which affirms what I said in the post. He keeps his horses stalled and turns them out in a pasture most days--and he had two geldings he'd been turning out together for months. And then one day one gelding attacked the other and came close to running him through the fence. Needless to say, he doesn't turn them out together any more (and both horses are fine). But that's the problem. Its OK until suddenly it isn't, and sometimes at that point there is serious harm done.