Wendy Findlay explains the importance of time out for horses

Horses or ponies that are kept stabled all the time seem to suffer more health and stress related problems than those kept at grass or stabled part time. A horse is naturally an outdoor animal and prefers to be outside most of the time. They can move around freely, and this is good for circulation, muscle development, legs, feet and general health.However, there are many people who think that the proper place for a horse or pony is in the stable – not just for a few hours a day or perhaps overnight, but all the time, day after day, and week after week. Then there are other people who know that their horse should get out more but find it difficult to organise, and somehow, the days slip by and the pony doesn’t get out for days on end.I once worked with a lady who fell into the last category. When she discovered that I knew a bit about horses, she confessed that she had a “mad lunatic of a mare, Middy” that she was really rather frightened to ride. In those days, I had no horse of my own and was keen to accept a free ride whenever I could, so I willingly agreed to try out the horse for her the following weekend. Middy turned out to be a well bred chestnut mare, bursting full of energy and thrashing round the stable. Chestnut mares have a bit of a reputation for being temperamental, and Middy’s behaviour was put down to this.A few questions later and a picture began to emerge: I discovered that the horse hadn’t been out of the stable at all for at least 14 days, not even for 10 minutes. The last time it had been out, it had only been lunged for 20 minutes because there was nobody to ride it. Despite the lack of exercise, it was getting two hard feeds a day like all the other horses. It had actually been quite calm and well schooled when purchased, but now, it was so highly strung that my friend was almost afraid to go into the stable with it.The problem and the solution would seem very obvious, but until I’d asked, nobody had actually stopped and counted how many days it was since the horse had been exercised. It came as quite a shock when we worked out that the horse had been confined to the stable for two full weeks without getting out at all! Being cooped up alone in a stable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was sending it crazy. Consequently, I had an exciting ride! Middy was full of energy and set off with her muscles bunched up, prancing along and diving at the bit. I kept her in a steady trot for about 20 minutes until she had calmed down enough to walk without jogging. We had a lovely ride along bridle paths for about an hour and a half, by which time the mare had relaxed considerably. My friend accompanied me on another horse and I suggested that she should arrange for Middy to be turned out every day in a field and exercised during the week when she was at work and couldn’t get down to the stables. She genuinely hadn’t realised that lack of freedom and exercise were causing Middy’s problems. I wish I could say that things improved after that, but unfortunately, the stables couldn’t provide the turnout needed, and my friend was so nervous of the mare that she sold her a few months later. Things could have been very different if the mare had been managed in a way more in tune with her nature.Full time stabling Full time stabling of a horse or pony brings with it a host of potential problems.The horse kept in a stable 12ft x 12ft is restricted in his movements – he will spend long periods standing with nothing to do. He can’t indulge in grooming with another horse, or wander around the field nibbling at the vegetation. Such a horse is more likely todevelop stereotypical behaviour as a way of coping with the stress of confinement. Stable vices such as cribbing, weaving, and box walking are all examples of stereotypical behaviour.Cribbing or crib biting is where the horse takes hold of the top rail of a fence or the stable door with his teeth and bites at it. It can develop into windsucking where the horse bites and inhales or sucks in air at the same time – apparently, the horse gets an adrenalin surge which makes the habit addictive and impossible to cure. Windsucking is classified as an unsoundness, which will reduce the value of the horse if he’s to be sold. Furthermore, it’s thought that other horses may copy the habit so a windsucker is not a popular horse to have in the yard!A horse that stands looking over the stable door shifting its weight repetitively from one front leg to the other is weaving. Anti-weaving bars can be fitted to the stable door to prevent the horse moving his head and neck from side to side, but a confirmed weaver will merely reverse back a few steps and do it inside the stable.A horse that walks round and round his box constantly in a state of nervous tension is box walking – this isn’t the same as a horse that circles his stable a few times because he knows his feed is coming or his friends have left the yard. The box walker never seems to rest. I visited a stallion once that box walked frantically – the owners considered it one of his little foibles but as the stallion was only turned out for 10 minutes a day, it seemed obvious that the horse was incredibly frustrated.The stabled horse runs a higher risk of infectious and respiratory diseases. This is especially true if the stable isn’t kept clean, and is poorly ventilated. A pony that is forced to stand in his own droppings and wet bedding may develop a fungal infection called thrush in his feet. The ammonia fumes can irritate his eyes and nose, and the dust in the bedding and forage can trigger a kind of horse asthma. All and all, it’s a pretty depressing picture if you’re forced to keep your horse or pony stabled, but there are many horses that are kept stabled all the time. In the UK, the ground becomes so wet that there aren’t many yards that can afford to let horses onto the land for much of the year. The damage done to fields in the winter by horses can be considerable. It’s a constant problem for horse owners who generally want to provide turnout for their horses but don’t have the means to do it.There’s much you can do to improve the life of your stable-kept horse, but it requires active involvement and organisation. If you work during the day and tend to your horse early in the morning but then not again until the evening, your horse has a long day ahead of him in the stable, every day, unless you do something about it.ExerciseExercise and turnout is desirable. Exercise may take the form of riding, being led, lunging or going in the horse walker. If you can’t ride your horse every day, consider paying someone to do it for you, or entering into a horse share arrangement, where you share the costs of the horse and the exercising with another person. Many riding stables offer a working livery arrangement where your horse can be used for riding lessons in exchange for some of his upkeep. This can work really well if you’re pushed for time. Your horse will be much happier if he’s kept busy.In the winter months, you could delegate a field or part of a field to be used for turnout – it’s accepted that the field will suffer, becoming poached and muddy, but the horses can be turned out to roam about with hay provided in racks. The droppings need to be lifted regularly, and though it’s not ideal if the ground becomes very wet and muddy, it’s better than leaving the horse in the stable all day. Some people are reluctant to turn their horses out if it looks like rain, which is most days, but a field shelter gives the horse the option of coming in and reassurance for the owner Some stable yards use their manege for turnout during the day, or spread a layer of gravel or hard core over a paddock to provide for winter turnout. A gravelled turnout area is also useful during the summer for laminitic ponies. Remember, every stable kept horse, no matter how contented (or resigned) it seems, is a free roamer at heart. Given the choice, it would rather be outside and in the company of other horses. Kept in the stable, the horse is totally reliant on his owner for his daily food and stimulation. It takes hard work and commitment to provide well for a stabled horse. The key to getting it right is to get him out of the stable every day and provide as much exercise and turnout as possible. It’s hard work but your horse will appreciate it. 

This article is from the September 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.

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