Turnout's Effects on Stall-Kept Equine Athletes

More often than not, performance horses are kept in stalls for the better portion of the day. Fear of injury is one of the most common reasons these equine athletes are confined, but does a lack of turnout have an effect on the horse's behavior both in a stall and under saddle? According to a group of German researchers, a little turnout time could improve a stall-kept horse's work ethic.

"Many competition horses are housed in single stalls, in many cases without any opportunity for free exercise outside the stall," explained Hanna Werhahn, MSc, in her PhD thesis, written at the University of Goettingen's Department of Animal Science, Germany. "This way of life constricts the natural behavior patterns of a horse to a great extent."

Werhahn continued to explain that wild horses spend about 16 hours per day foraging at a slow but steady walk. Wild horses generally trot while exploring and canter while fleeing or playing. Horses stalled for much of the day aren't able to partake in such activities, Werhahn noted.

"The aim of the present study was a systematic investigation of the influences of three turnout practices on the behavior of a group of competition horses housed in single stalls," she said.

The team employed four German Warmblood horses (two mares and two geldings) used for dressage and show jumping in three distinct turnout and training regimens:

  • Two hours of turnout before training (TBT);
  • Two hours of turnout after training (TAT); and
  • Training without turnout (NT).

The horses acted as their own controls during the study, which took place over three two-week periods. The horses consumed their normal diets during the study and were schooled by their normal trainers daily. Researchers documented the horses' behavior--both in stalls and in paddocks--using a combination of video camera recordings, direct observations, and GPS devices, and the trainers documented the horses' behavior under saddle each day.

The researchers classified the horses' stall behaviors using several different categories including: eating, standing alert, occupation with equipment, occupation with bedding, dozing, lying down (often termed a "nesting" position), lying flat out on one side, aggressive behavior, and locomotion. The horses' turnout behavior was classified as standing/dozing, standing/watching, standing/occupation, walking, trotting/cantering, and social interaction.

Upon reviewing the results of the study, the researchers made determinations in several areas:

Behavior in the Stall--"To us, the most important result regarding the behavior in the stable was that the horses showed significantly more frequent changes between the behavior patterns in NT than in the treatments with turnout," Werhahn noted. "This was interpreted as a more restless behavior in NT. They also showed more aggressions in NT." Further, the horses in the NT group were occupied with equipment (i.e., licking salt blocks or exploring buckets) significantly longer than horses in the other two groups. The mean duration of standing alert was significantly longer in the TAT group, and the TAT group dozed for a significantly longer mean duration than the NT group. Additionally, the researchers noted more aggressive tendencies with horses in the NT group than horses in the other two groups.

Behavior During Turnout--The team observed that horses in the TBT group were significantly more active during turnout than horses in the TAT group, and resting behaviors were significantly more prevalent in the TAT group than in the TBT group.

Distance Covered During Turnout--Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the distance covered during turnout was significantly shorter in the TAT group than in the TBT group. "But the horses still showed locomotion in TAT (always more than 1 km)," Werhahn noted. "That means that the demand for exercise was obviously not fulfilled by training."

Training Behavior--Werhahn's team found no significant differences in the horses behavior in the TAT, TBT, and NT groups, essentially meaning turnout had no effect on the horses' behavior during training. She did note that horses in the TBT group showed a tendency towards exhibiting a "good" willingness to perform, while horses in the NT group showed a tendency towards with a less willing attitude during work. Horses in the TAT group were most likely to show a "normal" performance, though the results, again, were not significantly different. Interestingly, the team observed that the training duration was significantly shorter in both the TBT and TAT groups than the NT group, and they also noted that the quieter the horse was in work, the shorter the duration of training.

So what does this all mean?

"The study shows that allowing or not allowing (turnout) and the particular time of turnout affects the behavior of horses in the sable as well as those in training," Werhahn explained. All in all, she noted, horses' stall and training behavior was more relaxed when turnout was allowed.

"We conclude that owners should try to allow free exercise," she added. "The best particular time of turnout is very individual for each horse and rider combination. Very 'active' horses might be more concentrated in TBT. More phlegmatic horses might be easier to ride in TAT. But this is very individual."

Werhahn also suggested owners concerned with risk of injury consider turnout after training, as the horses' locomotion activity is decreased as compared to turnout before training.

"Riders and trainers need to decide which way of management is the best for each individual animal," Werhahn concluded.

The study, "Temporary Turnout for Free Exercise in Groups: Effects on the Behavior of Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls," was published in the July issue of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.