The Guide to Horse Turnout Schedules

June 14, 2023

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

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Guide to Horse Turnout Schedules

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After 5,000 years of domestication, horses live very different lifestyles than their wild counterparts. Instead of roaming the Great Plains, they’re ridden, kept in stalls, and given access to fenced pasture for grazing and exercise.

Turning horses out is an important part a horse’s health, both physical and mental, though it comes with some risks. Individual owners and stable owners often employ different turnout schedules to promote wellbeing while minimizing risk.

If you’re starting a boarding facility or planning for your own herd, it’s important to understand the benefits and risks of different turnout schedules and setups.

What Is Turnout?

Turnout is the practice of taking a horse from its stall to a pasture or paddock for time outside. Whether on their own or in a group, horses have time to graze, play, socialize, and exercise in a more natural setting.

Benefits of Turnout

Turnout is crucial to horse’s health and wellbeing. Here are some benefits of regular turnout:

Digestive Health

Horses are designed to graze and keep their digestive system moving. Turning a horse out on grass ensures that horses have access to forage for gut health and motility. In fact, horses that spend more time outdoors have fewer episodes of colic than horses that are confined to a stall.

Respiratory Health

Any stable should be well ventilated and cleaned regularly to prevent the buildup of manure and urine that can create noxious fumes like ammonia. This is not only offensive to smell, but it can increase the risk of pneumonia or recurrent airway obstruction. The stale air and dust can also lead to breathing problems, so getting fresh air with turnout is crucial to a horse’s health.

Hoof and Leg Health

Horses’ legs and hooves are essential to their use and mobility, but they tend to be among the most fragile parts of their body. When horses stand in a stall, they can become “stocked up,” which is swelling that occurs below the knee joints. Horses may also injure themselves kicking or pawing in their stalls from frustration.

The hooves also require circulation for proper health. Exercise encourages hoof growth and prevents issues that can arise from standing in manure and damp bedding, such as thrush or white line disease.

Mental Wellbeing

Horses are high-energy animals that need enrichment to stave off boredom. If a horse has nothing to do in a small stall, it may relieve that excess energy by kicking or chewing. Eventually, more damaging vices like stall walking, weaving, or cribbing can develop.

Without adequate exercise and stimulation, some horses develop behavioral issues like aggression or anxiety. Under saddle, this can come out in vices like bucking or rearing.

Types of Turnout Schedules

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There’s no perfect turnout schedule for every horse and situation. Research supports horses having 24/7 access to turnout, but that’s not appropriate or practical for every horse or owner.

Full-Time Turnout

Full-time turnout is a natural situation for horses. Like their wild counterparts, full-time turnout gives horses freedom and exercise for their physical and mental wellbeing, whether with other horses or alone.

Unless you have an abundance of space, full-time turnout may not be an option, however. Frequent field rotation is necessary for pasture health, so if you don’t have the space to rotate your turnout, you could be sacrificing your healthy pasture for future seasons.

Another consideration for full-time turnout is shelter. Most climates aren’t ideal for horses to live outside – especially year-round competition horses – and you will need to provide shelter for them to escape the heat, cold, wind, snow, or rain.

Related: Do You Need Warning Signs on Your Property?

Periodic Turnout

Many stables rely on periodic turnout to keep horses healthy while managing pasture health. This involves turning out horses in four-, six-, eight- or 12-hour intervals. The pasture gets a break from horses and can be maintained while the horses are kept in stalls.

In cold seasons or climates, the turnout happens during the day to make the most of the warmth and sunshine. During a hot, humid season, horses may be turned out at night to keep them cool and limit the risks of heat and insect activity. This also makes the horse accessible for riding during the day.

No Turnout

In some cases, horses have no turnout because of space limitations or health issues. While not ideal, these horses get exercise from hand grazing and hand walking to help their physical and mental wellbeing.

Free-Choice Turnout

Though impractical for many boarding facilities, free-choice turnout allows horses to come and go as they please. With this setup, the horses’ stalls open to their pasture, giving them the option to spend as much time as they want in the field.

There are plenty of benefits with free-choice turnout, but it comes with drawbacks. In a group setting, horses can go in and out of each other’s stalls, complicating feeding time. Individual stalls and paddock eliminate this issue, but that requires a lot of space and there’s no option to rotate the pasture.

Related: The Complete Legal Guide to Hiring for Your Horse Farm

Individual or Group Turnout: Which Is Better?

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Horses are social herd animals that enjoy spending time with other horses. But for some owners and riders, the risks of turning out horses in a group far outweigh the benefits.

No matter how compatible a group of horses is, conflicts can arise. Even small squabbles can lead to wounds and scars, but at worst, horses can sustain expensive career-limiting or fatal injuries from a fight with other horses.

For many, horses are just too valuable – with veterinary expenses that are too great – to take this risk. There’s also a concern of time off from competition or breeding for high-end horses. Because of this, some owners prefer the option for individual turnout.

Conversely, animal welfare organizations like the British Horse Society prefer horses be turned out together. As herd animals, horses benefit from the company of other horses, the protection and security provided by being part of a group, and the mutual grooming that takes place in the field.

Still, it’s often not as simple as throwing a bunch of horses together in a big field. Horses of different temperaments can lead to conflict. For example, young horses benefit from the social interaction of group turnout for healthy development, but putting too many bold personalities together can result in bullying, fights, and injuries.

Sex is an important consideration as well. Some stables opt for same-sex turnout to avoid any issues as the mares come into seasons. Docile geldings may be suitable for turnout with mares all year, but stallions and colts approaching sexual maturity should be kept alone to prevent accidental breeding or aggression.

Plan Your Turnout Routine

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to turnout. Some horses benefit from spending time outside in a group, while others may prefer solo turnout without competition for dominance or resources. Finding the right balance for turnout depends on the needs of the owner and individual horse, the available space, and what’s most practical for everyone involved.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Find out more about turnout schedules and preferences for riders and stable owners.

How Long Should a Horse Be Turned Out?

Though 24/7 turnout would be ideal, the time period for turnout depends on the individual horse, the owner’s preferences, and the condition of the turnout area.

What Are the Risks of Turnout?

Allowing horses to spend time in the field is important for their health, but it comes with risks like injuries from mud, sand, or other slick surfaces, fights with other horses, or simple accidents like trips and falls.

Related: Poisonous Plants for Horses

Why Do Boarding Stables Have Limited Turnout?

Many boarding stables use periodic turnout periods because of the number of horses, the turnout space, time, and pasture health. The specific period for turnout should be outlined in the boarding contract, including any exceptions for weather or other circumstances, to keep everyone on the same page.

Should Some Horses Have Limited Turnout?

In some cases, horses are required to have reduced grazing or exercise because of an injury or illness. For example, with conditions like Cushing’s disease, excess grazing can lead to complications like laminitis. Some horses may need to be on full or partial stall rest while recovering from an injury as well.

What Is the Best Time of Day for Turnout?

During a hot, humid summer, night turnout is a great option to keep horses cool and limit insect activity. Horses that are at a high risk for sunburn and skin cancer, such as paints or grays, benefit from night turnout. In winter, day turnout is best for areas that have a lot of cold weather and snow.

Should Horses Be Turned Out in Inclement Weather?

Horses can handle a lot of different weather conditions, but turnout during severe thunderstorms or storm conditions like tornados or hurricanes should be avoided. With rain, wind, cold, or sun, horses can be turned out with proper protection. If there’s no shelter to give them retreat from the elements, it’s important to use discretion with turnout.

Do Horses Need Protection to Go Outside?

Not necessarily. Most horses will do fine outdoors in fair weather without any added protection, aside from season-appropriate blankets or sheets (including fly sheets and masks). Competition horses may benefit from leg and hoof protection like turnout boots and bell boots, however

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