As a disclaimer, I have spent 20+ horse-owning years in Ohio. For those of you who don’t know, daily turnout is an urban legend in Ohio. We like to do this thing where we advertise “Daily Turnout – Weather Permitting”…. sound reasonable enough! Except the weather sucks and the soil sucks, so it means your horse gets turned out 3 days a year. Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you can kiss winter turnout goodbye, and that certainly isn’t.
Therefore I have spent most of my life barn hopping in order to find good turn out. But like I already said, it just doesn’t exist in central Ohio. So I did the best I could with what I had and ended up giving Estella a giant stall connected to a small paddock that she could come in and out of. The paddock was not a real field and I never felt completely fulfilled that she enjoyed the benefits of what I think of as 24/7 turnout. But, it was the best I could do and it was a heck of a lot better than being locked inside all winter.
I still remember the day (we were still living in Ohio) that I came home to Matt crying over the turnout situation. It was heavy on my heart that she really needed movement for her physical health and I felt so guilty that she didn’t have more of it. Matt promised me that night that we would bring Estella home before she got old, where she could live outside and feel great and be as spoiled as ever. I felt comforted by that statement, but had no idea it would be happening so soon.
When I moved Estella and Bella home, I kept them in stalls at night that have their own small paddocks. Side by side and enough to trot around in, so I figured that would be the best way to introduce them. They wouldn’t be locked inside but they would have shelter and still be close to each other. I could tell Bella wasn’t a fan: she stood out in one corner of the paddock almost all night. Within 3 weeks I realized that they were well adjusted to each other and clearly enjoyed being out more than in. Since 24/7 turnout had been my plan since day one, the whole inspiration for this farm, I decided to give it a go! So what happened when I turned them out 24/7?
They immediately became calmer. As I have mentioned, Bella can be a little timid. Being in a new place with a new human and a new horse certainly warrants her the right. But there was no doubt that being locked up at night wasn’t doing her any favors. I thought I was, though; I had the best intentions. I wanted them to learn that the shelter is their safe place, but what it really did was just cause anxiety. A horse’s #1 response to fear is flight and when you take that away, you immediately make them anxious. Why did I think they would feel better being locked up? Now Bella LOVES the stalls, even more than Estella. Whenever she’s hot, bothered by flies, or just needs to take a nap, you can find her in the comfort of a stall. And she is so much calmer about it because she can choose.
No really, they became so much more calm. Remember how I posted about the drama the first few weeks with my neighbors horse? Quick recap: my neighbor’s lone mare shares a fence with one of our pastures and the girls were obsessed with her. They couldn’t stand to be away from her, constantly ran back to check on her, and panicked anytime they couldn’t see her. Now that they are out 24/7, they occasionally nap together but spend the majority of their time apart. In fact, now they could really care less what she’s up to. In the mornings when I would turn them out they would go flying past their hay and gallop around the fields with the mare. Now they are much more interested in food than any running of any sorts.
They are happier, with less tensions. Now that they are out constantly, they are getting along better than ever. They spend most of their time grooming each other (this is not an exaggeration, I someones wonder if they ever stop) and napping together. Besides weather-induced drama on Estella’s part, they seem much more comfortable with each other without the tensions of being in each others space. It’s so peaceful!
Their hooves are amazing. There certainly isn’t anything better for hoof health than movement. Their feet are incredibly strong and healthy. Their frogs look great and they have good growth. Considering I trim them myself, this thrills me. If you have a horse with thrush or contracted heels or poor growth, I promise you the best medicine is healthy movement.
My pastures were less torn up. I know that this is a big issue in Ohio: you can’t turnout for at least 27 days after it rains a light shower because the ground is wet and you have 9 horses in a pasture that should only have 3. Which equals mud, mud, mud! Again, a little exaggeration, but I get the mud struggle. The simple solution is an appropriate amount of horses per acre, which is hard to find at crowded boarding barns. But what I didn’t realize is that when you keep horses stall when it rains, then it stops and you turn them out, they then go wild around the field and tear up your pasture. Now that the girls can be out in a drizzle or immediately walk back out when its over, they don’t go running around the field and the pastures aren’t torn up. We just had 4 straight days of constant rain (8 inches) and everything is soaked beyond belief. While mucking the pastures afterwards I realized I saw a handful of small ruts, but nothing compared to the ginormous skid marks (serious, do I own reiners???) that covered my field after turning them out the morning after rain. It’s a win-win!
Overall they are so, so much happier and certainly healthier (mentally and physically). I am so thankful to have this opportunity to finally give Estella the turnout situation that she deserves and it is absolutely living up to everything I thought it would be. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but I am doing the best I can with what I have.
I know that most of us are doing the best I can, but I would like to take a moment to highlight a call to action for the change in turnout situations for those horses who get far less turnout than acceptable. I understand the situations in places like Ohio and I fully understand what it means to board, but I just want to be clear that 30 minutes of turnout in an indoor arena all winter long IS NOT TURNOUT. This is the most accepted form of horse abuse I see in the industry and it pains me that so many people have come to see this as normal. Horses are herd animals who are used to traveling many miles per day. Allowing them to hang out in an indoor for less than 1/24 of their whole day is simply unacceptable. These horses have a variety of behaviors that are labeled as bad character (nippy, bites, kicks, anxious, nervous, aggressive, bolts, bucks, rears, and the list goes on and on), but the truth is that these are displaced behaviors due to the lack of physical and mental stimulation. I don’t care how hard to ride your horse in one hour, that is not mentally and physically engaging enough for a horse to be happy and health in his stall for the other 23.
I understand that 24/7 turnout in big fields with a happy herd is not accessible by everyone. But we have a responsibility to do the best we can for our horses. As much turnout as possible will benefit your horse in ways you’ve never imaged! As Denny Emerson said (this is not a direct quote, so sorry, Denny, for winging it. PS if you are reading my blog please leave a comment so I can fangirl xoxo): horses can get hurt and die in their stall and horses can get hurt and die in the pasture. So if you’re worried about your horse getting hurt in the pasture, know that you’re taking a risk either way and the turnout is worth their mental health. If you are worried about your horse getting hurt by other horses, recall that long turnout allows horses to be calmer physically and mentally, meaning all these constant shenanigans you see in horses who are turned out for short amounts of time are because they do not get enough physical and mental stimulation!
I know some people are worried about mud, but there are plenty of options. Dry lots, sand, rotating pastures, and drainage systems are all good options. People in the UK have mud issues and have these mats to make tracks or to make entire dry lots. Many options worth looking into! If you are worried about your horse pulling a shoe in mud, here are so articles I have written on the benefits of being barefoot: One, Two, & Three
I am thrilled by the positive changes I’ve seen through 24/7 turnout and I know the girls wouldn’t have it any other way. Farm ownership is an incredible amount of work, but having the ability to have my girls so happy and at home is worth every ounce of it.