Winter Turnout Welfare.
By Chris James.

At this time of year horse owners worry about whether their horse should be tucked up warm in its stable or outside in the cold. Winter welfare issues used to centre on horses being kept on allotments with no shelter, no food and no company. The modern take on that, is horses being stabled virtually twenty-four hours a day and being 'killed with kindness'. They have colour co-ordinated rugs and are fed designer mixes - but they never go out in the rain, or the dark, or the mud. Not surprisingly when they do eventually get the chance to leave their stables they no longer behave like 'My Little Ponies' and are pinging out of their skins. They then are put on all sorts of 'calming' feeds and remedies.

The reasoning behind keeping them in seems to be two-fold. Just as children today are no longer allowed to walk to school or play outside for perceived safety issues, so some people think their horses are too valuable to risk turning loose in the field. They are clipped and rugged-up to keep them in show condition permanently. In the USA horses live out in conditions well below zero for many months of the year, without rugs, but they are very well fed and they have access to huge ranges, so that moving around allows them to keep warm and find shelter. Admittedly with our smaller pastures and winter rain, poaching of the paddock is a problem, but part of it should be sacrificed. Other alternatives are to house groups of youngsters in large barns with access to a yard area. At the very least they can socialise with each other. Keeping horses occupied goes a long way to keeping them sane.

'He just goes mad when turned out', is a common moan. However, if he were allowed to use up his energy, socialise with his friends and relax in the paddock then he would soon settle.

The more serious issue for constant stabling is because the owner either doesn't have the time or resources to turn out. It is a welfare issue when a horse is only turned out at weekends because the owner is at work during daylight weekday hours. It is bad enough when the horse is a mature animal in ridden work - but to coop up yearlings and two-year-olds in this manner must be damaging, not only to developing joints and bone but also psychologically. If the owner is out at work, how often is the horse being fed?

All horses need regular exercise and the correct diet to thrive and maintain bodily condition, and to provide the raw materials for growth, repair damaged tissues and provide the energy for work or exercise. In the natural state, the horse is a grazing animal, constantly eating throughout the day. It will eat for 18 out of the 24 hours. So, feed little and often. This imitates the horse's natural way of feeding, and achieves satisfactory digestion by ensuring a constant passage of food through the digestive system. Feed plenty of bulk and roughage. This ensures that the digestive system is always adequately filled, as would be the case in the wild.

"I feel strongly about this," said Eileen Gillen, manager of Belwade Farm, the ILPH's most northerly recovery and rehabilitation centre, "because we come across too many horses that are not let out at anytime. These are not happy horses. Sometimes you are told that the horse is worth too much to risk. But what is a horse worth who has severe behavioural problems? An example I came across recently was a Thoroughbred stallion. He was put into a barn and when mares came to be covered they were put in with him. He is never let out of this barn and this has been going on for four years. He is in good condition, but quite unmanageable".

Recent research estimates a total population figure of 975,000 equines in the UK. The population is estimated to have doubled over the last 15 years (or has been severely underestimated in the past). This significant growth rate represents an increase of approximately 33,333 horses per annum. This figure suggests that a lot of new horse owners have appeared during the last fifteen years at a time when many livery yards have closed down. Obviously these horses have to live somewhere and if someone is desperate to own a horses but without having their own land then they are often at the mercy of livery yards that do not have a winter turn-out policy.

"If it is necessary to keep a horse stabled to control its environment then the following should be done, " Eileen continues, "Ideally, where possible the horse should be in hard work, it should be on controlled rations and the stable should be big enough to accommodate them and have good ventilation. Stabled horses tend to have more ailments than unstabled horses. It is very easy to label a horse as having COPD, when all it really wants is good clean air. Yards with large numbers of horses often find turning out horses for an hour a day impractical. One observes that horses in this sort of environment are frequently the ones with the vices."

"The important way to look at this situation is by deciding what the horse thinks about it all. They are herd animals who in general are more resilient than we give them credit for. They can adapt to various situations if they are given half a chance to acclimatise to their surroundings. The horse grows a winter coat that we clip off because they will sweat too much when exercised. Good practice, we all think. But how many of us exercise for only one hour a day and then expect the horse to stand in for the other 23 hours? We then wonder why he has started to box walk, weave or kick the door down. Most of us will end up acquiring objects to amuse them while they are standing in their box bored. When all they want is to be outside doing horsy things. If you are worried about turning the horse out in the cold, pick up any equine magazine and you will find rugs to keep an Eskimo warm at -40?C. If you are worried about a tendon pull as it races round the paddock then it was probably waiting to happen due to a weakness there anyway".

A final thought from Eileen - In the winter when it is snowing or raining how often do you see a horse standing outside besides its wonderful field shelter? Yet in summer, on a lovely sunny day they are inside getting away from the flies


If you would like to have an article included in this section then please send your article to
© Arabian Lines 2001 / 2004. All Rights Reserved