Have you ever wondered why High Hopes chooses to have our horses live outside? Well, you’re not alone. It is one of the most frequently asked questions that staff members receive from visitors.
There are many reasons for our logic, here are some of them.
First, let’s talk about the challenges of keeping horses INSIDE. First and foremost, horses are not designed to stand still in small box stalls for hours and hours on end. In the wild, horses would travel many miles per day to find grazing areas and to gather at water sources. They would live together in large herds of mares and foals, with stallions gathering in bands of young males until they become the patriarch of a mare band. So obviously, removing their ability to move and socialize has impacts on their physical and mental well-being. This can be seen in higher instances of gastrointestinal issues, undesirable behaviors and other challenges with stall kept horses. Think of how you would feel if made to sit in a 4 foot square cubicle for 23 hours a day until you are brought out for 1 hour to exercise.
So if all of this is true, why don’t more people keep their horses outside?
There are many reasons for that, too. Space may be an issue. Especially in areas where land values are very high, it may be cost-prohibitive to keep the horses out on large pastures. Also, horses are hard on the land. In their natural environment, they would not stand on 1 acre per horse. They would travel over many acres per day, spreading their impact over a much wider area. In domestic horse management, a fair amount of investment has to be made in infrastructure to ensure that conditions don’t become muddy, manure filled or grazed to the point where all the grass is killed. Cleaning manure from a 12’x12’ stall is certainly easier and faster than having to remove it from 40 acres of pasture.
Some horses are kept inside for fear they will injure themselves in turnout. Either they might get dinged up in rowdy play sessions with their buddies, or they might get excited and run around – risking a soft tissue injury that might take them out of work for a period of time. These are valid concerns, but they are not concerns that prioritize the physical or mental health of the horse in the bigger picture. Our horses are not show horses, so the occasional ding or dent earned in the name of fun is not a problem. And since they are out all the time, they don’t get excited at sudden freedom from confinement. Periods of racing around and playing are simply the horses stretching their legs and having a good time. In fact, it’s good to see! It means they feel good!
Managing horses inside is also much more convenient for people. If you have ever helped with feeding at High Hopes in the pouring rain, blazing sun or driving snow, you can understand exactly what we mean. It is much easier to walk down an indoor barn aisle to feed grain and hay than it is to haul full bales across a paddock or apply fly masks or blankets outside in the weather. It takes double the human effort (at least) to feed and care for horses who live out than those who live in barns.
If you’re wondering “But what about the weather?? Aren’t they cold??”…the short answer is no.
Our horses have free choice hay available to them at all times. That, along with large run-in sheds for getting out of the wind and precipitation, is really all they need to keep warm. Horses are made for the cold, with large bodies that ferment massive amounts of fiber each day creating huge volumes of heat and the ability to shunt blood from their legs to prevent heat loss (yup – that’s how they can stand in the snow for hours on end with no problem). The constant movement around the paddock also generates body heat – similar to how you feel out shoveling snow versus standing still in the winter: movement makes a big difference in maintaining body temperature. Our horses are kept in their natural coats – not clipped – and so they are able to thermoregulate as they were designed to do. And we do provide blankets for the guys who don’t grow much of a coat or who are a bit older and may have trouble keeping themselves warm. Actually, the heat of summer is a greater challenge and so you’ll see us out there hosing and cooling horses in the field in the hot weather or bringing them in to the cool barn to stand in front of a fan for a few hours.
Certainly, the horses would be cleaner if they were kept inside!
This is an argument that is hard to debate with someone who is coated in dust from grooming a totally dirt-caked horse just in from the field (how DO they get it in their ears, anyway??), but again that is something that is convenient for people. Rolling (yes, even in the puddles) has value in that it helps to exfoliate the skin, promote circulation and itching all those itchy spots!
Living in the outdoor with lots of area to move benefits the horses physically in several ways. The aches of arthritis are eased by gentle activity, so the wandering around the paddock from hay to water to shelter or to find the tasty bits of grass is beneficial for that condition. As we mentioned earlier, movement makes it easier for the horses to regulate their body temperature but it is also important for normal digestion. You may notice that your own digestion is different on a day spent at your desk versus a day walking the golf course: gastric motility is affected by mobility. Finally, horses who suffer from persistent asthma fare much better when living outside for the simple reason of avoiding the dust in barns and stalls. The same logic applies to avoiding breathing problems altogether in the first place, outside in the fresh air is better!
One other interesting point is that the risk of predators bothering a healthy horse in our area is unlikely. Coyotes, bobcats, etc. are prominent here. But they would have to be mighty ambitious to attempt to catch a horse for a meal. More likely, those small predators are helping us with mouse control.
Our horses have vibrant social lives because they live out in herds. Even for those who are kept solo in their own paddock, they have friends across the fence. And having other horses nearby makes each of them feel secure. They rely on each other for alerting if there is something to worry about, someone to keep a watch while they sleep or eat, someone to scratch their back and just hang out with. Their sense of security comes from having other horses to rely on, “teamwork makes the dream work” when it comes to confident and comfortable horses! We cannot say enough about how important the social bonds and a sense of security are for horses. These are not solitary animals by any means…they have got to have a herd. Without it, they are simply not at their best.
Keeping them outside and providing the same level of care as if they were kept inside is a big undertaking, it take many people and it can be expensive. But as you now know, it is in the best interest of the horse, which is our highest priority.