Danger Zone: Turnout Injury Risks for Horses Increase in the Summer

What’s the alternative to keeping “hothouse” horses indoors under wraps all year? Insurance companies report that traumatic injuries to horses skyrocket in the summer months when they are out at pasture. Is there a happy, healthy medium?

Ponies working in coal mines were believed to go blind because they never saw the sun. Some horse experts fear that contemporary show horses aren’t far behind. They live in stalls, are ridden in indoor arenas, show in indoor coliseums, and spend long, long hours on the highway inside a trailer or van.

Many get their daily non-training exercise through time spent on treadmills, water spas or walkers that are also under a roof.

If these horses are turned out at all, their freedom may be limited to a pen not big enough for a horse to take more than a stride or two–at a walk.

Some horses can’t be turned out because of diet requirements and allergies. They may need to have their hay soaked, or owners may worry that paddock feeding practices allow horses to eat other’s grain or supplements.

Even “normal” horses are limited in turnout time, largely because boarding farms and training stables are built on small acreages. A horse may be guaranteed only a half hour of turnout a day, and managers agonize over allowing more than one horse in a paddock at a time.

Many horses must wear protective clothing because of insect allergies, to prevent coat bleaching or because their skin has a high sensitivity to the sun. 

When horses are allowed in a paddock, their legs are often covered with turnout boots, wraps and bellboots.

Some horses have such an exuberant reaction to being turned out that they are a danger to themselves. Bucking and twisting is fun to watch–if you’re not responsible for the horse. A horse can give a healthy buck, only to hook a hind hoof under the top board of a fence.

Critics believe that horses need social time with other horses for their mental health. They need fresh air for general health. And, most of all, they need exercise. The “hothouse” housekeeping practices associated with show horses is controversial enough to be discouraged by welfare laws in Europe, which require horses to have time outdoors.

And then there’s the rest of us. Horse owners may have enough land, but a horse may be recovering from an injury or illness, so it can’t be turned out with too-lively pasturemates or in a big enough paddock where it can run and buck. 

Personality and gender play a big role in who gets turned out when, and for how long. Mares may not get along with each other, and certainly can’t be turned out with stallions. Stallions may enjoy the companionship of a goat or donkey. Horses with laminitis (or a risk for it) may not be able to go out in a field during the spring or fall.

Those are horse problems. Turnout is also limited by people problems: the fenceline that needs repair, the trough that won’t hold water, the electric transformer that needs to be replaced. That tree branch that came down last winter is still lying on the ground. And no one even knows where the yellow jackets may have built a nest this year–but some (un)lucky horse is sure to find it!

Then there is the fear of leaving horses turned out when no one is home, since a horse can get a leg tangled in a blanket strap, slide halfway under a fence and get stuck, or just plain fall when playing. Horses get kicked or bitten, and some of them spend the day without any hay or water because more dominant horses keep others away.

And there’s no accounting for weather: snow, sleet, ice, thunder, lightning, relentless heat or cold, tornadoes. Even on a perfect autumn day, a horse can slip on wet leaves, step in a hole, or be spooked by your neighbor’s chainsaw or dirt bike.

Turnout is supposed to be a natural right of horses. So why is it so complicated? And why are so many horses hurt once you take the halter off and set them free–even in a relatively small space? Isn’t this their natural state?

In Europe, equine welfare laws dictate horsecare practices, including access to turnout. However, the high risk to horses of injury during turnout can’t be denied and new numbers document the extraordinary high incidence of mishaps when horses are out in the sunshine.

New statistics from Sweden puts some of the risk in perspective by dividing the incidence of pasture-related injury according to season and month. European insurer of horses Agria shows that the number of horses with traumatic injuries increased by 32 per cent in June to August compared with the rest of the year.

July is the year’s most injury-prone month in terms of traumatic injuries to the horse. Most often, the injuries will be skin lesions caused by bites or kicks from a pasturemate, or the horse may injure himself on a fence. Veterinarians see fractures, hoof and tendon injuries that occur in the paddock.

Karl-Henrik Heimdahl, horse veterinarian at Agria stresses that it is important that pasture pals establish a ranking system in peace and quiet, and that pastures have sufficient space for horses to be able to walk away from each other without being backed into the corner.

We’ve all seen horseplay escalate to rough play; skin damage or kick injuries can sometimes happen without any warning or pinned ears. At worst, fractures caused by horse interaction are, unfortunately, not uncommon. Some boarding farms require that horses turned out in multiples be unshod in the hind feet, but there are many ways that a well-placed horse kick can injure a pasture mate.

Daily inspection of grazing horses is very important, in order to quickly resolve any problems that arise. Uncomplicated small wounds can quickly develop into serious problems if days go by and an infection takes hold in the damaged tissue. Flies and other insects exacerbate the problems more quickly.

Increasing the horses turned out in the summer also increases the number of horses who escape their enclosures, for any number of reasons. Loose horses may go as far as the greener grass on the neighbors lawn, or they may gallop off and end up in danger on roads and highways.

Agria recommends frequent fence inspections, immediate repair of damaged fences and gates, and making sure that the amperage of electric transformers is adequate for the length of fence wire, when electric fencing is used.

The five most common injuries reported in summer months are:

• Skin Damage• Fractures• Hoof damage• Tendon and ligament injuries• Horses hit by cars

Agria didn’t stop with counting the injuries. They wanted to know what the injured horses might have in common. Were they the same breed or age? Did the time allowed for turnout influence the rate of injury?

Agria didn’t stop with counting the injuries. They wanted to know what injured horses might have in common. So, in addition to counting the claims and the types of injuries that veterinarians had diagnosed, they wanted to examine common traits of horses that were turned out and injured: Were they the same breed or age? Did the time allowed for turnout influence the rate of injury? What time of year did the injuries occur?

A detailed survey from the equine division of the Swedish agricultural university at Uppsaala looked at a group of injured horses, and compared them to a control group. The results were tabulated in a thesis by student Ann-Charlotte Darth in a thesis published in 2014, “Identifying causes and preventing injuries to horses”. Darth’s research centered on the known behavior of horses and discussed how wild horses behave, and how horses of various sized groups behave. Her research included tallying non-turnout injuries in order to ascertain how prevalent turnout injuries were in comparison to other sources of injuries, such as transport-related.

Darth developed a survey for horseowners, and a protocol for studying injured horses compared to a control group. She collected information from the horseowners in five categories:

A) Information about the owner/caretaker of the horse;  B) Information about the horse;  C) Information about the injury and how it happened;  D) Information how the horse was kept outdoors and indoors;  E) Information how the horse was exercised and trained.

The most common injury in the surveyed horses was a cut or laceration (37%) followed by “Other” (28% and including infected wounds, colic, or fractures). Puncture woulds accounted for 12% of injuries, open wounds 9%, and laceration/abrasion 8%. Two percent of horses suffered large penetrating injuries to the body, fractures, or hoof injuries (other than punctures).

Injuries increased with the amount of time horses spent at pasture: the highest number of injuries was among horses that are turned out 24 hours a day.

In Darth’s results, approximately 47% of accidents happened during summer, from June to August. Winter, spring and autumn tallied about 20% each. Regardless of the season, 74% of the horses’ injuries occurred in the paddock.

What (or who) injured the horses? The majority (31%) of injuries were caused by something in the paddock, followed by 20% caused by another horse or a fence-related injury. These statistics included a surprise: 4% of injuries were caused by an unknown human who deliberately injured the horse.

The circumstances of the injury varied, of course, but 19% of injuries occurred soon after the members of the turnout group changed. Some owners reported that the injuries were unpreventable, but when the injuries were preventable, owners suggested better surveillance of fences and removal of potentially dangerous objects from pastures.

What’s the answer? As Antonia J. Z. Henderson quipped in her 2007 paper, Don’t Fence Me In: Managing Psychological Well Being for Elite Performance Horses: “Although the horse has been domesticated for more than 6000 years, there has been no selection for an equid who no longer requires an outlet for these natural behaviors.”

The scientific literature is a gold mine for resources that equate turnout time with improved health and well-being in horses. Studies have connected dots between stereotypic behavior and lack of turnout. 

Horses with adequate turnout opportunities are often easier to control and train, a point often stressed by British dressage rider Carl Hester, who is bold enough to turn Olympic gold-medal winners out, and to even ride them on the trail.

Turnout time may even directly benefit a horse’s musculoskeletal health; horses with turnout time had measurably superior bone density to those who stood in stalls all day.

To learn more:

Reverberating Research: World Horse Welfare ​Position on “Social” Stabl​e Study​ (The Jurga Report)

Identifying causes and preventing injuries to horses Ann-Charlotte Darth Uppsala 2014 ISSN: 1652-280X Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Dept of Animal Environment and Health Student Report 575

Don’t fence me in: Managing psychological well being for elite performance horses Henderson, AJZ (2007) Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10:4 309-329

Behavioral and physiological responses of horses to initial training: the comparison between pastured versus stalled horses.  Rivera E., Benjamin S., Nielsen B., Shelle J. & Zanella A.J. (2002) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 78:235-252.

Short-duration exercise and confinement alters bone mineral content and shape in weanling horses. Hiney K.M., Nielsen B.D. & Rosenstein D. (2004)  Journal of Animal Science 82:2313- 2320.

Daily access to pasture turnout prevents loss of mineral in the third metacarpus of Arabian weanlings. Bell R.A., Nielsen B.D., Waite K., Rosenstein D. & Orth M. (2001)  Journal of Animal Science 79:142-1150.




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