Daily Turnout Improves Performance, Says Science

It seems that the more expensive the horse, the less turnout it’s likely to get. Some top-level show barns don’t even have paddocks. But what if turnout translated into better results in the show ring?

Top photo by Rennett Stowe

A recent study by equine behaviorist Suzanne Millman of Iowa State University suggests that daily turnout reduces stress in horses and improves performance.

Collaborating with Peter Physick-Sheard, Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, Dr. Millman and graduate student Michelle Drissler conducted a survey study of 14 Standardbred tracks in Ontario. They asked the grooms of nearly 1,300 racehorses a variety of questions about the care horses received.

Comparing racing records with the survey results, Dr. Millman’s group found a correlation between turnout time per week and performance. The racehorses allowed daily turnout were faster, had higher earnings and ran more races than horses that didn’t have access to a pasture, or were only turned-out once a week.

We are really happy about these findings,” says Dr. Millman. “It’s reasonable from a biology standpoint to say turnout is good for the horse because it provides a complex environment, stimulation and allows them to relax. And now we have research to verify that the emotional and physical benefits extend to the track.”

Obviously racehorses are not sport horses. But, Dr. Millman says, it’s likely that performance horses would derive similar benefits from turnout. (Before she earned her doctrate, Millman was a groom on the European show jumping circuit.)

Confinement in a stall conflicts with a horse’s natural impulses to move, socialize and graze. Invariably, the stress of these unmet needs will affect the animal’s behaviour and, potentially, its health and performance,” she explains.

In some stall bound horses these unmet needs manifest in problem behaviors, such as cribbing, wind sucking, wood chewing and stall walking—behaviors not seen in wild horses. In others, they may exhibit as excessive energy under tack or difficulty concentrating in training. It follows that providing outlets for a horse’s instinctive behaviors will allow it to adjust more readily to the unnatural demands of competition and performance.

A lot of the hunter/jumper barns are reluctant to turnout their horses due to fear that they’ll be injured,” says Dr. Millman. “I question the logic of that. But then I’ve never had a million dollar horse.”

How much turnout does your horse get? And do you think it’s as much as he’d like to have?


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