One of the interesting parts of teaching the public and working with equine behavior “dilemmas” I’ll call them, is running up against tradition. When it comes to behavior issues, often the problem can be quickly and simply solved with lifestyle changes for the horse instead of training.
“That’s just how we/they do things” is one of the most maddening and frequent responses I get. People at that point are looking for magic fixes – if you can’t change the lifestyle, how do I make the problems go away without giving the horse the necessary elements that make up physical and mental well-being?
One such situation is stalling. Through it is well researched and documented that horses are better off turned out with a herd eating forage for large parts of the day, many horses live in stalls still. Excess energy, frustration, anxiety, stereotypies such as cribbing, weaving, and many more issues are often the direct result of time spent in stalls. As it comes to their physical health, breathing issues such as heaves, stiffness, lack of blood flow and oxygenation to muscle tissue, higher risk of injury and colic, ulcers and many more issues are directly linked to time spent in stalls.
In some places around the country and the world, turn out is not available. I understand the frustration of not having access to land and the ability to do self care. In these situations, you have to do the best you can. More hay and more time hand walking or riding is ideal. Gut support and ulcer prevention or treatment is a great idea.
If you have the chance to turn out and worried about their safety, comfort, or whether they will stay clean, you know the risks, and you know the benefits. Horses who spend more time in stalls tend to have poor balance, decreased proprioception, decreased social skills and less ability to manage changes in terrain. This puts them at greater risk for injury
If they aren’t used to then out can start slow. Maybe behind with a small paddock and hand walks around the property to get the feel of the terrain. It may sound silly but I’ve had horses new to turn out stumble down a small hill or log, and become very fearful. Find them a calm friend and work up to full turn out and socialization.
Numerous studies, equine behaviorist and equine advocates all agree: turn out and forage is the best way to create a happy, healthy horse. Yes, even an old horse. Even a show horse. Even an arthritic horse.
So turn them out!