Winter horse management: stabling or turnout?
Equine vet Jane Nixon MA Vet MB BSc MRCVS has more than 40 years’ equine veterinary experience working with performance horses. Here, she gives her summary of the pros and cons of the two winter management options.
With the colder months setting in, many owners will be making the decision about winter management – to stable or not to stable?
It’s easy to think that, like us, horses will be cold outside in the winter, but it’s important to remember they have evolved to live outdoors all year round. They only get cold when exposed to temperatures outside of their thermoneutral zone, which is 0-25∘C (the human zone falls between 21 and 30∘C). They even have their own central heating system – when long-stemmed forage is digested, it produces heat keeps them warm. They will also grow a thicker winter coat.
For some, turning out all summer and stabling in the winter is common practice, while for others, a mixture of stabling at night and turning out during the day, such as 8am until 4pm, is the perfect compromise.
Only you know what’s best for your horse, but when considering whether to turn your horse out or stable for the winter months, here are some of the most important things to consider.
How old are they? Do they need the additional warmth and protection from the elements that stabling will provide or will they embrace being outdoors?
Does your horse prefer to be outdoors? How would they deal with being restricted to a stable for most of the day? Horses are also herd animals and research shows that they are more relaxed when turned out with others. Some horses can become restless or depressed when they are inside for long periods.
Will you be working your horse over the winter? If so, will this be enough to make sure your horse gets plenty of exercise? If not, your horse will need access to a paddock or be turned out during the day for exercise. If turned out, you may find that your horse exercises themselves each day.
Keeping horses outdoors will demand less of your time than stabling them yourself, but you will still need to visit twice a day to rug and feed them, as well as grooming. You’ll also need to check their water hasn’t frozen. Stabling means mucking out, as well as feeding, rugging, turning out your horses and then repeating the process in reverse.
If keeping horses outside, consider the conditions. Are there muddy areas or parts that can become waterlogged? If so, you need to stay on top of leg care to avoid mud fever. Grass grows poorly in winter, so you’ll need to provide hay. What shelter is there? Just be sure that it is big enough to house all horses in the field comfortably.
Monitoring your horse
Horses living indoors for long stretches need to be closely monitored for body weight, condition and behaviour to ensure they are getting enough exercise, feeding well and adjusting to the new routine. A simple way to do this is check how often your horse is defacating. Check each morning and if there is less than normal, seek advice from your vet.
Stabling can be more expensive than turning your horse out as you’ll need to provide all their food and bedding in addition to stable fees. For horses living out, there will still be costs, such as field rental, extra hay and additional rugging.
The colder months can lead to your horse’s immune system being weakened. If stabling, increased time around the dust from hay can result in respiratory issues, such as asthma. Check your hay regularly to remove mouldy parts and check for adequate ventilation in your stables.
If you decide to rest your horse during the winter, it’s important to reduce the amount of concentrate feed where necessary. However, any changes must be done gradually and in consultation with your vet or a qualified nutritionist.
Remember, if you do rest your horse over the winter, you’ll need to put the work in to prepare him for work in the spring to avoid injury.
Tip: Whatever option you feel is best, it’s essential that any changes to your horse’s usual routine are handled gradually, ideally over 10-14 days, to cause the least disruption and upset
Article first published in the Winter 2021 issue of British Eventing Life magazine