There is nothing more fun than watching horses gallop in joy around a field together! If you’re like me, you enjoy it but are holding your breath that no one gets kicked, loses a shoe, slips and falls down, or tears off a blanket while they are enjoying the great outdoors. I know turnout is great. But it’s also a danger factory for my horses sometimes!

There’s a couple of things I know about turnout.

Number one: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

I do remove some horse’s halters. Some can get stuck in them, as they scratch with a hind foot on the face (the worst wreck ever: can rip muscles and tendons and ruin a horse for life.) They can chew on each others halters and come in with a halter half over the ear and a serious burn on their head, or break a halter and have it hanging around the neck, getting caught in fencing, gates, feeders, or front feet as they drop their heads to graze. Halters are necessary on some hard to catch horses, or in some situations, however, so I try to make sure they fit well and snugly if I have to leave them on.

I have personally found very little advantage to the “safety halter” type of halters with leather crowns or fuses to break away if a horse gets caught. I have rarely had such a halter actually break away at the crown when actually caught, (usually the hardware breaks) so it seems to me they are no worse or better than an ordinary halter. Even a heavy web halter can break with the force of a 1,000-lb. horse. Don’t count on it though. Leave it off if you have a busy horse and lots of stuff for it to be caught on in your paddock.

Number two, it seems like a lot of dangerous accidents happen on the way in or the way out of the turnout.

I’ve found a super article on this subject at The Horse: Safety-While-in-the-Pasture.pdf, from the University of Kentucky. Here’s what they say:

“Body language is a horse’s principal means of communication. Horses use a combination of ear positioning, raising and lowering the neck and head, foot stomping, tail swishing, or other body movements to communicate mood or emotional status. Aggression establishes herd structures initially, and then body language maintains discipline within the herd.”

Taking a few minutes to study your own particular horses’ body language, or standing at the gate, studying the way all of the horses are moving and interacting, is a good thing. Learn who is on top of the hierarchy and who is in the middle and on the bottom. When you know how they have arranged things, then it will help you when you go out to remove a horse and bring them in, or in turning one out with others.

If I want shoes to stay on and kick injuries to a minimum, I’ll turnout the quietest horses first, then add the more excitable ones gradually, one at a time. I use a lead rope and turn the horse around to face me. I have learned not to simply let the horse go beside me and let them jet off kicking and screaming in joy…at the least you’ll get a hoofpacking full of mud in your face or on your good work jacket which you will have to change before going to work, and at worst you’ll be kicked. I’ll loop the free end of the lead rope over the poll with my right hand while I remove the halter with my left, and be sure to keep tension on the poll. Then all you have to do is let go of the loop and take a step back (make sure you are on good footing and in the clear.) Usually this can keep you safe, and the horse simply walks away.

So much of what we do around horses, especially for those of us who are with them every day, becomes so instinctual we don’t even notice what we are doing. For instance, I always hold the gate in the one hand and make sure to shut it behind the horse I am bringing out of the pasture, watching the gate opening and not the horse as it is passes around me. I do this to prevent any loose horses in the field from following the other horse out of the gate. It’s not even a thought process anymore. I just do it. But I can see how difficult it is to explain this procedure to someone who does not know how to get a horse out of a field of other horses.

“Mommy has sooo many things to think about…”

Number three, a big safety and comfort factor in turnout for us sport horse folks is blanketing, because we keep our horses in work year round. Blanketing for me depends on two factors — the individual horse, and the environment.

By individual, I’m talking basically about your horse’s hair coat. Is his coat fine and thin, has he always been blanketed in the past, or coming from a warmer climate? Is he clipped, if so, how much has been clipped, is he completely body clipped or just trace clipped leaving some longer hair over the back and haunches? Actually, blanketing a furry horse can reduce the warmth of the horse, because the natural insulation of a full coat of hair can be flattened by the blanket. Sometimes just a waterproof sheet can be enough for an active horse.

Environment: in our area, the weather can change drastically from morning until night. Often when I turnout in the morning, we can have a 10 degree or even 20 degree (F.) temperature change, and go from dry and sunny to wet and windy. I’ve learned the newer materials in horse blankets with breathable layers and moisture wicking properties are very helpful to keep the horses’ body temperatures halfway consistent. I want to keep the body temperature consistent, because if the horse’s body detects it is too warm, it will sweat under the blanket — not a good thing, as it makes the body slimy, makes the blanket slip and slide and could get it out of position. Sweating under a blanket also makes them itchy and they will want to roll, which could shift the blanket and cause a wreck. Enough sweating and the horse will lose weight, too. Sometimes you just can’t get home fast enough to prevent a horse from sweating under the blanket, so the breathable options are a real saver.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you know it might not be enough blanket warmth when your clipped horse looks like they are growing their coat back.  How can you tell when a horse is cold? They’ll act like they do not want to be out. They will stand and not move around too much. They’ll beseech you with their eyes. They will wait at the gate, sometimes not so patiently. You may see them shivering. I tend to overblanket so I don’t see this too often!

Environmentally, there is little you can do to change the weather! The best you can do is watch the forecast carefully. Wind and rain are the biggest factors in what to do about turnout choices.

The nicest scenario would be a paddock with great draining footing, a deep and wide shed that the horses can freely move in and out of and even the bottom horse on the herd hierarchy can get room to get in out of the wind. I think next best would be good rainsheets or blankets for each horse so they can take their “shed” with them no matter where they are in the field.

I have found horses don’t much care about a soft or medium rainfall, but it’s the wind that makes them move about in the field to find a sheltered spot. When you see the horses standing with their heads down, butts to the wind, facing the same way — they’re trying to keep the rain from their ears and they’re not very comfortable. Nature is taking over and telling them to hunker down. When their body is in this position, they are just burning all those expensive grain mix calories to stay warm, and it’s best to bring them in. If I were able to provide windbreaks in all of my paddocks, I sure would do it, as the horses need shade in summer, too.

A good rule of thumb with turnouts is, do you have to wear a coat in whatever the weather is? Then your clipped horse will, too.

If the weather calls for rain, make certain the blanket is waterproof. Not water-resistant, waterproof — there is a difference. A soaked and wet blanket has a number of problems. First, it’s heavy. (Back-wrenching to pull off a wet horse!) Don’t expect it to be dry for tomorrow, either. Wet blankets can take days to dry and not all of them can go in a dryer.

Good fitting blankets and halters help keep my horses’ turnout times a bit safer!

Next, it’s not protecting the horse if the horse is wet underneath. Truly waterproof blankets are more expensive than lightweight stable blankets but if you had to make one choice, a lightweight waterproof turnout sheet is probably the best bargain. Your horse can wear it during very cold wind chills with a full winter coat underneath. He can wear it spring, and summer while losing or growing coat.

With the addition of an inexpensive fleece liner sheet, it’s going to act almost like a medium weight turnout blanket should you have a horse with a light coat or trace clip. Make sure it has, criss-cross belly straps, and adjustable front buckles or clips and dees so it will fit your horse as he grows or changes shape from work.

When to turnout? I haven’t always been this way, but now I’m a fan of the “turnout most of the time”. Unless the weather is downright brutal for our area, as in severe windchill or heavy snow or rain, I’ll leave the horses out. Exceptions would be the hurricane like winds or rains, snowstorms to the point of blizzards, or similar weather. That would only be a few days a year that we are keeping them in the barn in stalls full time, and most of the time they’re out with sheds for shelter.

I have found my horses are happier and enjoy themselves more, are sounder, eat better and are less likely to have herd problems or other difficulties, their feet stay better and attitudes calmer and they are less worried. Ulcerated horses do better when turned out as much as possible, it seems to me.Those are just some of the advantages and factors I’ve found in turning out horses in winter! If you have some, be sure to let us know: email HJU  and give us your winter turnout tips!