Q: Can my horse live out?
Answered by Charlotte Bastiaanse
A: Before domestication, horses used to live out throughout the day and night. Nowadays, horses are generally, at least in South Africa, turned out during the morning and brought back into their stables in the late afternoon. Some yards, however, still only turn horses out for a few hours each day. While horses can adapt to life indoors, it’s commonly understood that the longer a horse gets to spend outdoors, the better. Time spent in the paddock keeps the horse physically and mentally healthy, because it affords him time to move around freely, socialise with other horses and graze on natural feed. Some horse owners, as a consequence of this, prefer to let their horses live out 24/7. This is, however, not suitable for all horses or all situations.
Before you can consider letting your horse live out, you need to ask yourself whether he can cope with life outdoors. While this may be the natural route for horses, due to domestication some have become very accustomed to stable life, and simply struggle to get used to the lack of stable time. Horses brought up on a stud are often allowed to live out until the time comes for them to be backed. Therefore, if you are buying a youngster from a stud, the chances are that your horse will thrive living outdoors. If, however, you’ve acquired a horse who has been stabled for his entire life, the chances are high that he will struggle to adapt to life outdoors, at least initially. Horses who have been clipped and/or blanketed all their lives are likely not able to cope with the first or even second winter fully outdoors. Horses have a reduced growth in winter coat the more blanketing and clipping they are exposed to. This means that for the first winter they are turned out, they will likely not grow a thick enough winter coat to keep them warm. That being said, horses generally do adapt to their physical environment ultimately, leading to their physiological needs following suit.
Considering the personality of your horse is also important. Ask yourself if your horse is the kind of animal who is okay with change, or if he tends to become anxious if circumstances alter. A horse who is naturally skittish and nervous has a higher chance of reacting negatively to living outdoors, especially if he has grown accustomed to comfortable indoor stabling. This is worth bearing in mind in order to make the transition as smooth as possible.
The next thing to consider is if your paddock is suitable for permanent living. The outdoor horse needs considerable space and grazing in order to cope. While grass is an important source of energy and nutrition, you don’t want a paddock that is either overly rich in grazing or overly sparse. Overly rich grazing can lead to obesity and predispose to laminitis, and sparse grazing can result in weight loss and poor nutrition. It is likely that whatever the quality of the grazing, additional mineral and vitamin supplements will be needed to boost your horse’s health and immunity. If your horse is expected to compete or partake in high-level work, you should expect to have to feed him some concentrate while in the paddock. When grazing is low, bales of grass can be put out in the paddock. Always ensure that there are more piles of grass than horses in the paddock to avoid fighting over resources.
Horses are usually left unsupervised at night, whether they are stabled or live out. Most yards have a quick evening check, but most horses won’t see another caretaker until the following morning. For horses who live out and get the benefit of less restricted movement, it is even more important to make sure that the paddock is completely safe so you don’t wake up to a disaster in the morning. Firstly, you must make sure that the paddock fencing is sturdy, well maintained and made of safe material. Hinges and latches must be checked on gates to ensure that horses can’t get out or injure themselves on these. Paddocks must be walked at least twice daily if horses are living out to make sure that there are no dangerous weeds, litter or potholes that have developed. It is also crucial to provide horses living out with some kind of shelter to protect them should the weather become extreme. Shelters will provide shade and protection from strong winds, heavy rain, lightning and hail. The shelter must be big enough to accommodate all of the horses in that paddock.
Another safety concern for horses living out is midge-borne illnesses such as African Horse Sickness. The Culicoides midge, which is responsible for transmitting AHS, is more prevalent outdoors in the evening, especially around wet or marshy areas. Horses living outdoors are thus generally considered to be more exposed to the midges than horses who live in stables, increasing their chances of contracting this often deadly illness. Of course, however, the risk is not avoided even with stables. It is also worth noting that many stabled horses are in fact worked in the early evening, which puts them at greater risk than any other horses for attracting the midges, due to their sweating and increased carbon dioxide production. The risk is just something to bear in mind, and of course to vaccinate against. Your vet will be best able to advise you on a suitable vaccination regime for horses who live out.
Horses are herd animals and prefer to live in groups. A horse who lives out should therefore have at least one other paddock mate, and ideally several more. It is important to ensure that all horses living in a paddock together get on and that new horses are introduced gradually to avoid conflict. The paddock must be big enough for all the horses, and there must be enough food and water available for all of them. Competition over resources is a common issue and this must be avoided as far as possible.
Horses who have lived in stables for most of their lives, or who have been clipped regularly will probably need a blanket in the paddock for at least the first winter or two living out.
Horses who are used to living out will probably not require blanketing. South African winters are mild, and horses tend to develop good winter coats if they live out permanently. However, some horses who are new to living out may require blanketing. A thick duvet is not necessary, but a fleece or thin duvet may be needed. It is important to remember that blankets can be an additional hazard for horses living out, so only use them if necessary.