Turning Horses Out

Turn out or not to turn out, that is the question.

  Question: Anyways, I have a question for you. You have mentioned in a few articles that a riding horse should never be turned out. I know that you have also said that if a horse has never done something it will never know the difference, or what it is missing. But I'm wondering if instinct tells a horse from day one that it should be out running around and grazing, whether they have never been turned out or not.
  I guess my question is, what do you do with your horses, and how do you keep them happy and content in a stall.

I see so many horses that live in a stall every day, and are ridden daily, that get very antsy and upset, and start cribbing. I guess I'm just wondering if you have found that horse can truly be content, happy and satisfied living in a stall its whole life and never getting to run free on pastures or graze on grass?

  Answer: First of all you are confusing the word "instinct" with the word "thinking". The instinct of the horse may move the horse to run when in the open, but there is no instinct that would suggest possibility of something else. In short, the word "should" belongs to the department of human thinking and not to any instincts, since it is often part of some answer to questions like, "what if"? Furthermore, I have mentioned, that the contentment of the horse rests on the predictability of the environment that the animal lives in. In addition to that, we need to clarify the term "riding horse", as it may mean something to one person, and something else to another.

  The term riding horse refers to the particular work of the animal, similar as racehorse, carriage horse, draft horse and such. Please note the word work, in which case it is presumed that the animal works every day of the week, and may get one day off from work, which is basically prescribed by the bible, to rest the working animals every seventh day, on Sabbath, which pretty much remained that way in all Christian countries.

  Now your confusion rests in a simple fact, that you are failing to discern between work and play, hence your approach to horses, as well as to the old literature, is fairly unrealistic. And so I repeat, that when I am referring to a riding horse I am referring to a horse that works as riding horse everyday, day after day. The working horse for most part does much more moving through the day than the free horse, or the turn out horse, and so most of them appreciate the repose and the privacy of it in their own stalls. In other words the suitable stalling of a horse adds to the animal's contentment, and not the other way around. Of course the inappropriate care for the animal, like feeding, grooming, handling and such, can contribute to the animal's misery.

  The discontent and misery of the animals can have many causes, in most cases it is the work itself, and the way the animal is treated, handled and cared for. The unsuitable living environment can also contribute to the animal's discontent. Let me show you couple of examples, so you may understand better. For example, the circus horses do the same routine day after day, the same things over and over for some 20 years, while never seeing the pastures. This of course will appear cruel to any sentimental thinking mind of the human, but since the animals do not think, they are not aware of their state of existence, let alone of some other possibility of existence. They simply adjust to the environment they live in, and if it is stress free and predictable, they will feel very content, and they did in the circus all those years. It would be fair to mention, that one groom was assigned to four horses for the whole day, and so these horses received superb care and attention. I do not recall seeing any horses bored or miserable.

  There are of course some horses that do not adjust well to a particular environment, but they are hardly the criteria for how animals should be treated. It does not differ much from people, where some adjust well to the environment they live in, and others do not, hence we have prisons for people. As far as the animals go, that do not adjust well, we simply replace them, and of course do not breed them, or better said, do not reproduce them.

  The turning out of the working horse can have some benefits, but the risks outweigh the advantages, hence most reasonable horsemen would not turn out their well trained riding horses for obvious reasons. The reasons being mainly the safety of the animals, since many injuries to horses come from the turning out, especially with other horses. In addition to that, the hoof care becomes more complicated, especially in shod horses. Furthermore, if the particular work of the riding horse requires sudden bursts of energies, like for example the racehorse or dressage horse, the turning out becomes literally foolish and fairly dangerous, as horses like these are maintained in the higher level of energy for their performance sake. Horses like these are very prone to injuries when turned out, since most of them feel extremely energetic and run too much and too fast, often in sharp turns or stopping at the fence and such. In short, turning out horses like these is plain foolish.

On the other hand if you have a horse that is working very lightly, or does not work every day, one is better off turning such horse out for a few hours. It was seen as one of the greatest sins among the horsemen of my days to leave a horse in the stall for one day, and so horsemen never had a day off, since they had to at least lightly exercise the working horses on their day off, like longeing or hand walking and such.
  On the same note, it is much safer for the amateurs to turn their horses out, lest these horses become difficult to handle for the lesser rider. I use the term "flattening the horse out", when referring to turning the amateur riding horse out, by this meaning, to flatten the temperament and the energy of the horse by turning it out on the pasture. On the same note, one does not want his high performance horse to be flat, so-to-speak, when in performance, like the racehorse or dressage horse.

  And so, in conclusion, one has to exercise a sound judgment in what to do and not to do with his horse, and weigh out the risks. When you are turning the horse out you are exposing the animal to unnecessary and additional risks, and as an amateur rider, by not turning out the animal you are increasing unnecessarily the risks to yourself. And so if you handle your horse as an amateur, you cannot expect from the horse to behave and go for you as if treated by the professional that will not turn out such horse, and has more energy of the horse to his disposal, and if properly managed the same rider will get much more cooperation from the horse than the amateur. It would be also prudent to add, that if the rider is not a decent rider and horseman, and will attempt to do it more or less in the way of horsemen riders, he will more likely end up with fairly miserable horse, which is more likely what you have witnessed.

  Remember that a decent riding solely rests on the willingness of the horse, as well as the animal's contentment with the rider, the work and the environment, and since every horse is different, the answers to all questions regarding the particular horse are in that animal.

  I close with the saying, that a man should know his limitations, and a woman her place, and one is wise to exercise his or her judgment accordingly.

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek