Ever wondered what is the best winter management option for your horse? For some owners, there is no choice in the matter – it is dictated by the livery yard owner or how much time they have to give to looking after their horse.
But if you had the choice, what would it be?
Here, we explore the two most popular options that owners face. Keeping your horse stabled overnight and turned out through the day or 24-hour turnout all year round.
Remember that all horses have individual needs, so you must ensure any routine you choose suits your horse.
Stabling your horse
Stabled overnight and turned out through the day
Currently, this seems to be the most popular winter management routine with owners and is favoured by livery yards and riding schools. Many horses seem to enjoy coming in overnight in the winter, hanging around the gate as it starts to get dark! But don’t be fooled – this is more to do with knowing that food awaits them in the stable than a desire to be inside all night.
It is a good option if you don’t have access to well-drained land or if feeding hay in the paddock is not possible. During winter, the ground can become very boggy and keeping horses out all the time may not be ideal, especially if you need to save the paddock for the summer months. Ideally, a separate paddock should be set aside for the winter.
Keeping your horse this way is time-consuming and so not for the faint-hearted. He will need a visit in the morning to be fed, rugged and turned out. In the evening, you will have to bring him in, change his rug from a turnout to a stable rug and feed him. Also, at some point in the day, you’re going to have to muck out his stable and fill a haynet ready for the night.
Horses kept in this way, although appreciative of some turnout, are still subjected to being stabled for a long stretch of time – for some this could be anything up to 16 hours. During this time, your horse may become bored or depressed and could develop stable vices. There are plenty of stable toys on the market to help relieve boredom, or consider a small-holed haynet which will make his ration last longer. For a cheap option, try hiding carrots in his bedding for him to find.
A horse kept this way over the winter will need to have his feeding and exercise routine carefully monitored. The last thing you want is a fizzy, unmanageable horse. Some owners may be lucky and get away with riding just at the weekend. For others, their horses will need more than this once they are not able to exercise themselves 24 hours a day in their field. So bear this in mind, especially if you work through the day and do not have access to a floodlit area for riding during the week.
You may want to try lungeing, long-reining or loose schooling as an alternative to riding if the weather is very bad.
Don’t overfeed – this is a mistake many owners make through the winter as it’s easy to overestimate the amount of work your horse does.
Hacking or short schooling sessions every day, with the odd competition, is only light work, so feed your horse accordingly. Many do well on a diet of mainly forage with only small amounts of hard feed.
Things To Consider
- Cost of bedding, hay and hard feed
- Time involved
- Can you manage a potentially fizzy horse?
- Try lungeing some days if you can’t ride regularly during winter
The cost of keeping your horse this way will vary depending on where you live, the food you buy, what bedding you use etc. However, as a rough guide, on a DIY basis at a livery yard you should budget around £180 per month. This is for a horse bedded on straw in light work. It does not include shoeing, vet bils, insurance, lessons etc.
Although it can be expensive to buy, rubber matting in the stable will greatly reduce mucking out time and also the amount of bedding you need. It’s an investment that could help you stay sane this winter.
Turned out 24 hours a day all year round
Some horse owners are now tuning in to the fact their horses seem much happier and relaxed when they are out in the field with their mates. Owners who use this system also tend to be happier and relaxed as the workload and cost is less!
However, there are still many who are reluctant to adopt this system. Reasons they give may include: the horse is too valuable and he may get injured; a competition horse will lose his edge if he relaxes in the field; he feels the cold and so on.
In fact, any horse of any breed can live out all year round. True, you may experience difficulties at first while your horse adjusts but with time most problems can be overcome.
A field with good drainage is best as horses standing in mud for long periods of time are more susceptible to mud fever. If this is a problem for you make sure your leg care routine is spot on.
Your workload should be easily manageable with this system. Your horse will still require two visits a day – for checking and feeding – but there is no mucking out, bringing in and out of the field or filling of haynets etc.
As the grass is poor during the winter, you will need to feed hay in the field. If it is snowing or the ground is frozen, your horse will need extra hay as he will not have access to grass at all during these harsh periods. If he shares his field with others, such as at a livery yard, come to some arrangement with the other owners as you will need to share the workload and bill for the hay.
Because your horse can exercise himself all day long, you may find that you don’t need to work him so hard over the winter – a real bonus if your facilities are limited. Again, you will need to feed according to your horse’s workload. Use a weigh tape to monitor his weight and keep a close eye on his condition over the winter. As his body will need to work harder at keeping warm than his stabled companions, he might lose a little weight.
If your horse is to stay out during all weathers, make sure he is well rugged. Layering is a good idea as warm air will be trapped between each rug. Don’t clip your horse as he will need his thick winter coat to keep warm. He should still be able to cope with light work.
The cost of keeping your horse out all year round will vary enormously depending on whether you have your own land or are at a livery yard.
If you have your own land, or can rent a field cheaply, then the cost is minimal. Budget for around £50-£100 per month. This is for a horse in light work. Some livery yards don’t offer a price reduction for horses living out – so check this before choosing one.
Things To Consider
- You will need to keep your field water supply from freezing
- Your horse will need the company of other animals, ideally a horse, if he is to be happy
- You may need to have the use of a stable in some circumstances – if your horse needs box rest due to an injury, for instance
Horses living out will need some form of shelter and there are many types available to buy. If you are lucky enough to have hedges or trees in your field they will do the job just as well.
Give Your Horse a Life
Did you know that, when left to their own devices, most horses will choose to live outdoors in a herd, play lots and form pair bonds?
It is not wise or acceptable then to keep your horse in his stable for 24 hours a day, even if the weather is raging outside. He is a social animal who likes to roam and his domestic life should mirror that of his wild counterparts as much as possible.
There is lots of research available to show the effects of confinement on horses. Most significantly, this research shows that horses who live out 24 hours a day are much more relaxed than their stabled friends and consequently are easier to manage and ride. Stabled horses become bored, are often depressed and can begin to show signs of stereotypical behaviour (stable vices) such as crib-biting and box walking more quickly than you would imagine.
The kind of depression experienced by stable horses can leave them susceptible to:
- Disease and poor health
- Reproductive disorders
- Allergy-related problems
- Diet-related problems
- Serious behavioural problems, including aggression
- Skin problems
So – think twice before you decide to keep your horse confined to a stable 24 hours a day. If this is the only management regime available at your yard, then perhaps it’s time to find a new one?