Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Nothing is quite as simple as it seems

I read an interesting post on Wiola's blog the other day.  She was reflecting on whether horses prefer being in or out, and her post includes a link to another blog by a writer who obviously believes horses shouldn't be kept inside for most of the time.

Well, fair enough - I think most of us are aware that horses aren't at their best, either mentally or physically, when they are kept stabled for too long.  However, as Wiola says in her post, it can work for some horses particularly if they are in a very busy routine with lots of out-of-the-box activity for much of the day.

She also highlights how incredibly adaptable horses are: they commonly tolerate being kept in different extremes - from 24/7 turnout with no shelter to 24/7 stabling - and adjust surprisingly well in most cases to less than ideal domestic environments - its one of the secrets of their success, after all.
With the horses here, I am fortunate to be able to give them lots of choice most of the time.  One of the joys of having tracks is that you don't have to choose between stables or turnout.
 On a track, horses can get the benefits of turnout - foraging, movement and social interaction - even when the weather is too wet or grass too sugary for access to fields to be a good idea but you can also provide some of the benefits of stabling - shelter, dry footing and hay or haylage (with the downside of having to muck out, of course - nothing is all upsides!).
The interesting thing, though, is that once you give horses these choices, their decision-making appears more complex.  As Wiola says, there are constants which horses always want - food, water, companionship - but if these are available both inside and outside, then things become more interesting.

Horses (at Rockley at least) don't always prefer being outside.  Last Tuesday, when we had severe storms, most of the horses spent most of the night in the barn.   During the summer, on hot days when the flies are bothersome, they will also spend as much time as they can inside.  Conversely, on a bright moonlit night they will spend as much time as possible outside.  They aren't overly bothered by rain - its wind, and light, which determines where they want to be.
If you are used to horses being stabled individually at night, its interesting to observe that horses actually are happiest in groups, whether inside or outside.  After all, in a field they tend to sleep in groups so why should it be any different inside?
Our barn is set up traditionally, with large boxes, but when I open these up at night in the winter its not uncommon to find 3 horses all resting in one box when I go in last thing.

So when you are asking if your horses prefer being in or out, there are other questions you need to take into account - the answer is unlikely to be a simple yes or no :-)

Do they have companionship, whether in or out (horses will not use shelters if they are being bullied but some also hate being inside alone)?

Do they have access to forage, whether in or out (in the winter lots of horses appear to "prefer" coming off the fields simply because grazing is poor or non-existent)?

Do they have the ability to get out of the wind (a shelter which is facing into the wind will never be popular)?

What is the footing like?  Horses will often avoid boggy, poached land out of preference whether its a field or a track, so provide well-drained, dry areas if you can.

Is there enough space for horses to get inside without feeling threatened (there is no point having a 12ft shelter and expecting 3 or 4 horses to be able to use it)?

And even if you think you know the answers, they can surprise you!  On Tuesday morning the weather here was so grim and wild that I was prepared to leave the horses in, if they wanted, after they had been fed - they had clearly been inside most of the night sheltering from the storm, the winds were gusting at 60-70mph and we had horizontal rain sheeting in from the west, inches and inches of it.

After breakfast, though, they made it pretty obvious that they wanted to be allowed out, even though the weather to me looked horrendous.  Sure enough, about half an hour later the rain had stopped and the wind was dropping - as the horses obviously knew it would...


jenj said...

Thoughtful post!

I too am often surprised about where the boys choose to spend their time. In the summer, they are often under a certain clump of trees in the heat of the day, instead of being in the barn where there are fans. Maybe there are fewer flies? I don't know. I have one that races for the barn at the first sign of rain, while another will happily stand in a downpour to eat hay. They are definitely all individuals with their own preferences!

The pictures of the snow at Rockley are just beautiful! I'd be jealous, except snow means cold... ;)

Nic Barker said...

Definitely agree about individual preferences, Jen :-) I sort of wish the snow pics were recent but they were last winter's - currently we are mild, foggy and very, very wet - yeuch...

jenj said...

What!?! Snow pics are from last year?!?! I feel so... cheated! ;)

cptrayes said...

I don;t have a track but other than that my boys have a similar set-up, with access to a barn where they stay together. It is surprising how much they put themselves to bed in the barn. They certainly would not choose 24/7 turnout.


lytha said...

very insightful post!

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

I'm going to share this post with a fellow blogger who is worried about her horses choices re shelter, grazing etc. Good info - thanks.

juliette said...

Thank you very much for this post. I am the blogger Calm, Forward, Straight talked about (thank you C,F,S) for passing along the link.

This post comes at the perfect time for me as I am wrestling mud in our pastures right now and questioning the happiness of my 24/7 (previously blissful) turnout. Thank you - I will read and reread for thorough understanding.

Nic Barker said...

Glad you've found it useful :-) Juliette, I sympathise - we've had terrible wet weather this winter and it makes everything very, very difficult...