Maximizing Turnout on Small Acreage
Q: I recently purchased a small horse farm so I can move my horses home with me. I don’t have unlimited acreage, so how can I make sure my horses have plenty of turnout space with the land I have available?
A: Researchers have shown captive animals can live healthier, less stressful lives if they have opportunities to spend time doing activities they’d do normally in the wild, such as moving around in large areas, searching for food, and interacting with members of their species. The same can be said for horses because stalled horses can be more likely to have gastric ulcers or exhibit vices, such as cribbing, pacing, pawing, and weaving, than those with adequate turnout.
Turnout areas where horses can roll, exercise freely, or socialize with others are vital to horse health and welfare. Quality turnout time is dependent on a healthy, enjoyable turnout space, usable year-round.
Considerations for Creating Turnout Space for Horses
Location of Paddocks and Pastures
When creating a turnout area, look for a spot on higher ground, away from wetlands, ditches, or other water bodies to help with drainage and prevent possible water contamination. For efficiency this area should be easily accessible for daily chores as well as for delivery of footing or fencing products.
Paddock or Pasture Size and Shape
The size of your turnout depends on several factors, including your horse’s age, breed, temperament, and exercise frequency.
Other factors determining turnout size include the number of horses in your care and whether you will turn them out individually or together—multiple horses require more room, of course. Be creative in finding space for adequate turnout; even small-acreage properties often have a corner or an unused spot that might make a good paddock area.
Fencing for Horses
Choose the safest fencing available for your turnout. If multiple horses are sharing the space, consider creating rounded corners to prevent aggressive horses from trapping others.
Horses are hard on fences and might test most types but tend to have more respect for electric fencing. Regardless of the fencing style you choose, consider reinforcing it with electric tape so the horses don’t lean on or chew it. Also, keep in mind that gates should be adequately sized for any delivery trucks you might expect (such as those with footing).
Pasture or Paddock Footing
Proper footing helps reduce erosion and mud in the winter and dust in the summer. Consider putting gravel (crushed rock, no larger than 5/8-inch) or coarse-washed arena sand 3 to 4 inches deep in high-traffic areas such as in front of gates, shelters, and feed/watering areas. Avoid feeding your horse on these surfaces to prevent ingestion of sand and soil particles and decrease risk of sand colic.
Enrichment for Turned-Out Horses
Enrichment is the key to creating a horse-healthy turnout of any size. Equine enrichment provides stimulation in a horse’s environment that benefits their psychological and physical well-being. Examples include locating your horse’s turnout area in a spot where they can watch you mowing the yard, see your kids playing in the pool, or observe the neighbor’s livestock. A sand pile for rolling or a scratching pad to rub on provide interesting activities for horses. You can place trail objects in the paddock for horses to step over or move around.
It is important to be cautious with enrichment activities because some horses can become overstimulated when too much enrichment is added too quickly. With a young horse, a new individual, or a more excitable horse, slowly introduce stimuli. Monitor his or her behavior for signs of anxiety, such as pacing or excessive sweating, which would indicate a change was made too quickly.
Other enrichment tools include toys horses can safely move around in some way via feet, head, nose, or mouth for investigation and exploratory play. Horse balls or food toys can also be fun for horses in turnout (be careful to avoid sharp edges or toxic materials).
Social experiences are the best form of enrichment for horses. As herd animals, horses need social interactions in their daily lives. Consider placing turnouts where neighboring horses (that haven’t gone off property recently and, therefore, don’t pose a biosecurity risk) can reach each other and scratch each other on the neck.
Enrichment activities don’t need to be expensive. Be creative and vary the activities regularly.
Pasture and Paddock Management
Continue basic manure management. Remove manure removed from turnout areas regularly to avoid mud buildup and horses’ exposure to parasites and other pathogens (disease-causing organisms).
If you have a shelter in your paddock, install rain gutters and downspouts to divert rainwater away from your horse’s turnout area. You might divert water to undisturbed vegetated areas on your property, such as woods, native landscaping, or rain gardens, or you might send it to rain barrels or cisterns.
Other Turnout Options for Housing Horses
An existing fenced arena or round pen can double nicely as a turnout area. A track paddock that goes around the outside of a pasture, arena, or the property perimeter is another creative idea for turnout.
Pasture is the most natural turnout area for a horse. However, horses allowed to graze continuously on pasture can degrade fields quickly, leaving behind mud, dust, and weeds. If you do use pasture for turnout, be sure to follow good pasture management techniques: Never graze below 3 to 4 inches of grass at any time of the year and avoid compaction by not putting horses out on wet soils.
In modern horse keeping, turnout areas provide room for horses to move about, helping prevent boredom and health issues and allowing us to manage our horses in a way that best complements their nature: free-ranging, inquisitive, and social.
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