Why Living Outside Can Be Beneficial To Your Horse’s Mental Wellbeing

While I was out riding in a heavy rainstorm the other day I walked past a woman with a little girl. They both smiled politely as I rode past but after passing them I heard the girl ask her mom if horses minded getting wet. At first, this made me laugh but then it started me thinking about whether it’s better for our horses to keep them out during extreme weather conditions (such as heat, rain, or even snow) or if they would be better off inside?

Of course, we always want the best for our horses but just because we prefer to be inside ourselves when it’s pouring with rain or when the sun is burning down it doesn’t mean our horses would choose the same, regardless of how cozy their stall is. We all have different opinions on what’s best and while I’m no authority on the matter I certainly have had an awful lot of experience which is why I decided to write this article.

Are horses happier living outside? As a general rule horses that live outside are happier and more content. In part, because they are herd animals that prefer the company of others rather than the isolation of a stall. Being prey animals, they also feel happier if they’re not confined and have somewhere to run if necessary.

As with everything in life, there are a number of advantages and disadvantages to keeping a horse outside, but while there are negative aspects that can be annoying and inconvenient to us, the main thing to keep in mind is the benefit living outside can have on your horse’s mental wellbeing. After all, horses are social animals that need the company of others in order to feel safe, comfortable, and especially to stop them from feeling lonely and stressed.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Horses are happier living outsideHorses can be harder to keep clean
More natural for the horseMore likely to pull shoes or chip hooves
Can live with the rest of the herdIncreased risk of mud fever and rain scald
Horses are more activeHorses are more likely to injure themselves
Less likely to suffer from colicHorses can easily put weight on
Less likely to develop behavioral issuesMore prone to grass sickness
Coughs are respiratory issues are rareDarker coats can fade if the sun is very bright
Leg mites don’t bother horses as muchAt a greater risk of being stolen
More likely to spot injuriesMore likely to ingest parasitic worms

Many competition or show owners keep their horses stalled so that they can prevent injury, maintain weight, and coat condition, but when the horse’s competition days are over it’s often retired. This means that, in some cases, the owners can’t afford (or justify) the cost of full board so opt for either pasture board instead. Almost all of these owners remark on how much happier their horses are living outside, as well as how they no longer have issues with maintaining their weight. 

With this in mind, the question shouldn’t really be one of whether or not horses are happier outside, it should be one more of what can we do to make their outdoor lives as comfortable and problem-free as possible.

As a general rule horses are far happier living outside

What’s involved in keeping a horse outside?

If you’re going to keep your horse outside then there are a few things that are crucial, not just for their health but also for their safety.

Shelter (or run-in)

While horses are far happier living outside they still need some form of shelter or protection from the elements, whether it’s a natural shelter or a purpose-built run-in, this is crucial. An ideal shelter will have a least three sides and have enough space to allow the horse to take cover from the sun, wind, and rain if they want to.

If you don’t have a purpose-built shelter then you need to make sure there is enough natural cover to give your horse the same level of protection. The problem with natural shelter though is that there is always the issue of branches (or even trees) falling, or reduce protection during the fall and winter when the leaves have fallen.

Water

Regardless of whether a horse is kept indoors or outside they still need access to plenty of fresh, clean water, whether it’s from an automatic water system or manually topped up.

You can’t just give your horse water and then leave it at that, the buckets or troughs will need to be cleaned regularly in order to prevent bacteria and waterborne flies laying eggs in it. You’ll also have to make sure the water supply doesn’t freeze during the winter.

If you have water troughs instead of buckets (and the local law permits it) why not consider putting a few fish in the trough? This will help to keep the water cleaner and reduce the chance of any fly eggs actually hatching. Just make sure you put a rock or two at the bottom so the fish can hide when your horse has a drink.

Plants

Ragwort can be fatal to horses

Horses are generally pretty sensible when it comes to what they eat and tend to ignore poisonous plants but that doesn’t mean you should leave them there. At least once a month you should check the pastures for any new toxic plants that may have sprung up. You should immediately remove any plants that you do find, but be careful to make sure you’re also pulling the roots up. I’d advise wearing gardening gloves when you do this though because some plants (such as ragwort) can be harmful to us as well.

Don’t just check for growing plants though, some plants and trees (such as the oak) will drop highly toxic seeds or fruits that also need to be cleared up. This is often more important because horses can easily eat acorns and other seeds without realizing it when they’re grazing.

If you’re not sure which plants to look out for then you should read this article, while it covers a lot of things horses can’t eat it does also cover a lot of plants.

Regular checkups

It’s important to realize that while you don’t need to clean the stalls of horses living outside they still need the same amount of care and attention. This means that you can’t simply turn your horse out, feed him and then just leave him to it.

Just like a stalled horse you should bring him in regularly to check and clean his hooves as well as to check him for injuries or any signs of illness. In fact, there is some evidence that if a horse is turned out and checked over regularly injuries are more likely to be spotted. It’s not sure why this is the case but it’s believed that these horses are being handled more and that owners are therefore more likely to notice any abnormalities.

Manure

While horses that are kept outside are less likely to walk in their droppings (or those of other horses) it still needs to be removed regularly from the field in order to stop a horse suffering from worms. Ideally, you should do this every day but if that’s not possible then it should be done no less than twice a week.

If you have a lot of horses in a field then it can prove to be back-breaking work clearing all of the manure but, while it does need to be done there are other ways of removing the worms that live in the manure. It might sound like a strange suggestion but adding a few chickens to the pasture will make the task of clearing the manure much easier. The reason for this is that chickens love to eat the eggs and worms that live in the manure and will break it apart just to get at them. This means that while they’re not removing the manure they are getting rid of the parasites which is the real problem. There is also some evidence that horses find chickens amusing.

Fencing

Fencing doesn’t directly affect a horse’s health and wellbeing so it’s often overlooked but it’s vitally important that you have strong sturdy fencing that will not only help to keep your horse and secure but it will also help to keep thieves outside. 

Depending on the type of fencing you have you’ll also need to check it regularly for nails, splinters, and even broken posts. For a more detailed guide to fencing, you should check out the article I wrote recently explaining it all.

It's important to make sure your horse's fencing is in good condition and secure

How to keep your horse happy (and healthy) during the summer?

Flies can be a real problem for horses that are turned out during the hotter summer months, even if they’re not the biting type. The good news though is that there are a number of things that you can do to minimize the effect they can have on your horse.

Spraying your horse with a suitable fly repellent, as well as using a fly or summer sheet (and mask), can do a lot to prevent mosquitoes and other flies from ‘attacking’ your horse. You probably know that standing water can attract a lot of flies but did you know that wooded areas often have a higher concentration of flies too? Turning your horse out away from both of these means that they’ll be fewer flies around.

Keeping your horse healthy and at his optimal weight can be difficult during the summer when the grass is richer. Eating too much of this can not only lead to rapid weight gain but also make a horse more prone to laminitis. This is why some people choose to bring their horses in during the day and turn them out at night. If you don’t have the option to do this though then you can fit your horse with a specially designed grazing muzzle that will reduce the amount of grass he’s able to eat by around 80%.

How to keep your horse happy (and healthy) during the winter?

While you obviously won’t need to worry about the sun or flies during the winter there are other problems to contend with, the worst of which is the mud. 

Mud

Mud can be a real problem during the winter, it can get into everything, cause mud fever, and can even help to pull your horse’s shoes off if there’s enough of it but, while you can’t do anything about the actual mud there is plenty you can do to reduce the amount and minimize the effect it can have on your horse.

Unless your horse really needs them it’s always a good idea to have a farrier remove your horse’s shoes during the winter. This will not only stop the mud from pulling them off but will also help your horse to walk over the mud rather than through it. I know that might sound a bizarre thing to say but, just as is the case with our fingernails, horse’s hooves have some flexibility to them. This means that without shoes your horse will be able to spread his hooves out better, enabling them to work in a similar way to snowshoes (although not quite as effective). This means that, as your horse moves, he’s less likely to sink into the mud.

If you normally feed hay in one particular area you’ll quickly notice how muddy it gets but scattering the hay around the field instead will greatly reduce this, if not eradicate it completely. As an added bonus the horses will also be forced to move around more, encouraging their natural grazing instincts but also helping to keep them active.

While you can reduce the build-up of mud where the horses eat it can be hard to do this in areas that are heavily used, such as around water troughs and gates. This can often be the most problematic mud because the horses are standing still in it (pushing the feet and legs deeper into the mud), but spreading a layer of straw over these areas will act as a barrier between the mud and your horse. You’ll probably need to lay fresh straw regularly but your horse will no longer be bothered by standing in mud.

If you’re done everything you can to reduce the amount of mud but are finding your horse’s legs are still caked in it then bandaging them up will prevent this from happening. If you do choose to do this though, then you’ll need to remove the bandages from time to time in order to give your horse’s legs a chance to breathe.

Horses can get extremely muddy during the winter

Lack of forage

Being natural foragers, horses will look further afield for food during the winter which can lead to their own set of problems. Vets have noticed that pasture horses are more likely to suffer from eye injuries during the winter because the lack of grass means that horses look to hedgerows to provide the nutrients that the grass did in the summer. 

While it can be difficult stopping your horse from sticking his head into a dense hedgerow you can make it harder for him to do this as well as reduce his need to search for food. Placing a strong fence between the hedgerows and the pasture can make it more difficult for your horse to reach them while increasing the frequency (and quantity) of hay will keep your horse occupied and less likely to look for additional food.

Do you need to blanket a horse that lives outside?

It’s a popular misconception that if a horse lives outside it needs a blanket but this isn’t necessarily the case and depends on the weather conditions, the horse itself, and even its workload. 

Horses that have a heavy workload are often clipped to reduce sweating but, while this is obviously beneficial during exercise it can make it harder for them to keep warm while turned out so a blanket is often needed to make up for their lack of coat.

If you’ve ever seen horses in the wild you’ll notice how they all huddle together to keep warm, regularly swapping their positions so that they can all stay warm. With this in mind, horses that are left to develop their natural winter coats don’t need blankets, even in the snow as long as they have a shelter to protect them from the snow and help them to warm up. 

That’s not to say though that your horse won’t need a blanket during the winter. All horses are different and something that applies to 99% of all horses may not apply to yours, so with this in mind it’s important to pay attention to your horse and monitor him. If he appears to be getting cold then put a blanket on him.

Is it always better for a horse to be turned out?

We’ve talked a lot about the positives of keeping a horse outside but every horse is different so it’s wrong to say that every single horse is better and happier turned out throughout the year. 

If your horse is regularly picked on by the other horses at the yard then he may in fact be happier if he’s stalled for prolonged periods of time. Some horses also develop stronger bonds with humans than they do with horses so turning them out, away from people, is more likely to increase their stress and add to their anxiety.

As I said before, all horses are different and what works for one horse won’t necessarily work for others.

What are the advantages of keeping a horse outside?

Stalling a horse is a human invention brought about for our convenience, it’s not a natural horse behavior. Horses are herd animals that prefer to live together in groups, it gives them a level of security and protection over predators. It also gives them a chance to relax by mutually grooming each other (a bit like a spa day for us!). This is why living outside is so beneficial to a horse’s mental health but there are other bonuses to horses living outside. 

Horses that live outside, with the company of other horses, are far less likely to suffer behavioral issues such as windsucking or weaving because they have the freedom to do what they want to do and don’t feel trapped in a confined space.

There is also evidence that horses that are turned out are far less likely to suffer from impaction colic, largely because they’re not eating their bedding but also because they’re less likely to suffer from stress.

If you’re not able to exercise your horse regularly then keeping them turned out can help to overcome that. Being natural foragers horses are more than happy traveling great distances (around 30 miles a day) in search of food and water which means that, while your horse clearly won’t be covering those sorts of distances they will be far more active wandering around their pasture grazing at different patches of grass and socializing with the other herd members.

What are the disadvantages of keeping a horse outside?

I know we’ve talked a lot about the advantages of keeping a horse outside and while it’s often in the horse’s best interest it does have some disadvantages, especially if you’re looking to show your horse or they’re easy keepers.

Regardless of the time of year, it can be very difficult to keep a horse clean if they live outside 24/7, in the winter they’re likely to be covered in mud with any number of plants clinging onto their manes and tails. While in the summer horses like to roll in the dust in order to cool themselves down, but also to act as a natural sunblock. Depending on your horse’s coat color it may also become sun-faded (although this is more common in darker horses).

It can also be harder to regulate what your horse eats if he’s turned out, yes you can know exactly how much you’re feeding him but it’s impossible to know just how much grass he’s eating. Spending large amounts of time grazing also increases a horse’s chance of picking up parasitic worms that have made their way into the grass from the manure.

Keeping a horse outside often involves a lot more work for us too because we need to regularly clean up manure, remove poisonous plants, as well as check (and repair) fencing. This sadly means that it’s not possible for every owner to do.

Conclusion?

While there are pros and cons to keeping a horse outside it’s obvious to see that, from the horse’s point of view at least, it’s a far better option. That said though it doesn’t always fit in with our lifestyle so, if this is the case for you, you should try to give your horse as much turnout time as possible. This will allow him to mix with his friends while also exercise his instincts as a horse.

In the long run, an outdoor horse is going to be a far happier one.

Further reading

Recommended products 

Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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