Equine Smart: Turn Out For What

Welcome to a new column by Lauren Bond, Certified Equine Behavior Counselor! In her inaugural column, Lauren gets into the mind of the horse to explain why turnout is so vitally important.


Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Turn out: (Noun or verb) meaning the area in which a horse is allowed some freedom of movement and grazing. Verb, the act of taking a horse from stall to pasture.

The idea is so simple: remove the horse from their stall and put them in a bigger enclosure outside. Sometimes there are friends outside, sometimes just neighbors they can see, or even better, neighbors they can touch. As we rise up through the levels of our chosen disciplines and up through the levels of cost of horses, we see less and less turn out and fewer and fewer herds. So why is this a topic that needs exploration? Because I believe everyone needs to understand why it is important and why it should be part of every horse’s life.

Horses, even our pampered little domesticated divas, are herd animals. They need friends in order to be their most normalized, contented selves. All horses are more secure when they can see and touch other horses. Horses in herds communicate, move around together to graze or explore new things, stand guard when one of them is sleeping or ill, groom each other and teach each other about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The benefits of turning your horse out with a group of friends go well beyond the basic social kindnesses, and should almost always outweigh the reasons to avoid it.

Social Interactions

Horse communication is subtle and nuanced. We primates are terrible at reading it and hopeless at mimicking it. All of the “be the alpha horse” stuff makes me laugh and laugh: we can no more be a horse than our horses can be President. So while our horses may accept our presence in their lives, and even regard us as friends, we are no substitute for other horses. Communication, especially what our horses would consider polite and acceptable, can only come from another horse.

Imagine if you were trying to talk to everyone around you about your fears, worries, joys and feelings and no one could ever understand them, or respond in kind! Mutual communication is essential for feelings of wellbeing. A good amount of horse communication is visual; they read each other’s feelings and sentiments by watching movements. So even if your horse can’t be turned out in a field with a friend, it is paramount that they have a visual friend. I am even a fan of shared fence lines because if you can find a good match, touch is hugely important.

Horses in herds will touch each other in a number of ways: sometimes kind, sometimes rude. Horses will stand together flank-to-flank in opposite directions, nose-to-tail with friends so that both partners benefit from tail swishing in their faces. This greatly cuts down on the amount of flies in the eyes and ears and noses, and also is a nice way to rest with a friend in the summer. This kind of mental and physical rest period is something that can only be achieved by having a friend they can touch.

Mutual grooming, also known as allogrooming, is a key piece of horse behavior that can only happen when two horses can touch each other. You’ve probably seen this act: the horses stand head to wither and scratch and nibble each other on the wither/shoulder/neck area. It has a calming effect for the horses and has been proven to lower their heart rates, as well as help solidify the bonds of acceptance and friendship. I have seen an existing herd of friends allogroom a new upset addition to the farm and it has incredible efficacy for helping him adjust well to the new digs.

In feral herds, where life happens more exclusively without human interaction, horses will provide a huge amount of comfort and group support when life-changing events happen such as sickness, foaling, breeding, and discipline. There are always family and friends around to lend moral support and opinions.

Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Kicking Up Your Heels

Being outside allows for a new level of body adjustment and movement. Horses need space to kick, buck, roll around, and yes, sometimes run! No one who has ever watched a horse roll in a pile of old hay can deny how happy they appear when they get up and shake off. Movement is self-reinforcing for horses: they feel better when doing it. Even a generous-sized stall doesn’t allow for the freedom of movement our horses require to feel best in their bodies and their brains. Running isn’t always a sign of distress. Sometimes it is a sign of play, exuberance or joy. Don’t you want your horse to be joyful?

Stalls are restrictive even in the best and most generous of scenarios. We dictate to our horses what food they can eat, what they can see, what weather they can experience (imagine being denied a cool breeze!) and even who they have to live beside. I am not saying a stall doesn’t have benefits, but it does have major drawbacks. Ever needed to pop or crack a joint to release tension? Horses have similar needs and far fewer options to move their bodies around in a stall to achieve that level of release. Rolling, playing, running, bucking, and jumping around can all achieve physical release as well endorphin release for an overall feeling of wellbeing.


Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Grazing: More Than Just Eating

Grazing provides mental stimulation: horses can look around at novel stimuli like birds and wildlife, watch other horses and communicate with them, sniff manure, catch a whiff of something on the wind, and yes, eat.

Horses are professional eaters before they become anything else. On average, horses are eating for 18 out of 24 hours a day, getting a constant supply of forage to keep their gut working. We can supply hay and concentrated feeds like grain in the stall or stable environment, but getting to choose how, where and what to eat is important to our horses. Fresh forage (almost never a single type of grass, but a mix of plantain, clover, and many grass species) also offers far better nutrition and variety then the hay and grain we can feed inside. Choice is a powerful reinforcer for our horses, just as it is for us.

More importantly, grazing offers movement. In his 2012 presentation “What about the other 23 hours of the day” to the International Society of Equitation Science, Dr. Jan Ladewig from Denmark said that horses who receive turn out move on average 400% more then the horses who only go from stall to work and back again. Using pedometers, he proved that horses in full training with a daily ride take far fewer steps in a day then a horse who is turned out.

If you want to keep your horse fit, work and turn out together is the best combination. Movement also reduces inflammation and stiffness, increases blood flow and natural healing, supports the immune system and helps keep your horse happy.

Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Oppositions to Turn Out

The biggest opposition to turn out that I hear most often is a fear of injury, but the full list of reasons is varied. Here are a few key points:

  1. Horses get hurt doing all manner of things. Expensive horses get hurt rescue horses get hurt, inside horses get hurt, outside horses get hurt, horses get hurt in work and retirement and all over the world. There is no fool-proof way to avoid injuries, but I believe that it is our duty to ensure our horse’s best quality of life at all times because we have domesticated them for our purposes. It is our duty to ensure that we preserve their happiness to the highest degree possible. Turn out is essential to that.
  2. If your horse doesn’t get regular daily turn out, even alone, the risk is far greater for over-stimulation with occasional or non-daily turn out. Over-stimulation or hyperactivity is often the result of not enough turn out. Introduce turn out to the routine in a way that mitigates as much disaster as possible. Gradual introduction to turn out, especially with friends, is essential. I would be happy to share my personal protocol for herd creation or new horse introduction: see contact information below.
  3. Fly sheets and blankets may be a hinderance to your horse truly scratching an itch or getting to allogroom with friends, but if they mitigate your fear of bleaching out or protect a hypersensitive horse from insect bites, then I am all for them if it means turn out can be achieved.
  4. Worried about fence issues? Some horses may require double fencing, but for most problematic fence dis-respecters, electric wire is easy to install between and on top of board fences and is a quick and effective fix.
  5. Shelter from the elements is an important consideration, and I believe in providing a run-in that is big enough for everyone in the herd to fit inside comfortably. An alternate solution is to bring horses into their stalls in inclement weather. Some states have laws that require shelter be provided: be sure to check with your local horse board or animal control to see if such a requirement exists where you live.

I recommend that everyone turn out their horses. No exceptions. There are plenty of ways to do it safely and reasonably in a way that meets everyone’s needs. I am happy to help develop turn out strategies that work for your specific situation!


Photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

Lauren Bond is a Certified Equine Behavior Counselor who has loved horses since she was 5 years old. Lauren has worked as a groom, lesson barn manager, riding instructor and behaviorist. Lauren loves science and has been using it to train animals since 1998. Clicker training inspired her degree in animal behavior. Lauren works with a wide variety of client horses, including rescue horses, lesson horses, and competition horses all the way up to International Grand Prix. Lauren offers online consults, phone consults, in-person sessions and clinics. If you have a behavior question or if you would like to discuss a behavior issue, please email [email protected]. Read more about Lauren by going to www.equinesmartmd.com.

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