Turnaround on turnout: why competition horses should get their field time *H&H Plus*

  • Turnout for the performance horse is often met with conflicting opinions, particularly in winter. Dee So’oialo of Dynamic Sports Performance explains the anatomical benefits behind field time...

    For owners of performance horses, finding the balance between their equine “doing a job” and “being a horse” can be difficult, with the job often taking priority. Plus in winter, practicality or yard rules often dictate whether it is possible to turn out our competition horses.

    However, even with sufficient turnout options, many professionals in the northern hemisphere have long favoured keeping their horses stabled in winter, believing the potential dangers of the paddock outweigh the benefits. A combination of this risk and the desire to keep competition horses immaculately presented has created a norm of performance horses often not being turned out at all in winter and insufficiently in summer.

    But times appear to be changing, with top riders beginning to recognise the benefits of regular turnout. Living out or allowing turnout for short periods to offer breaks in a competition schedule is growing in popularity, with riders reporting positive effects on their horses’ mental wellbeing, reduced stiffness and a lower rate of stable vices.

    There are a growing number of solutions to the impracticality of winter turnout. Many yards use field matting or hardcore around muddy gates and walkways. Paddocks are the ideal, but all-weather turnout pens or time out in the arena with a haynet are alternatives, providing the horse with a change of scene from the four walls of their stable, allowing them to wander and unwind.

    Working with horses and riders in all disciplines, I can see that getting the best out of a horse comes down to knowing them and treating them as an individual. The vast majority of performance horses enjoy their job and are treated like royalty, but if 2020 taught us anything it is that no matter how nice the palace, we all need to escape those four walls and have some freedom sometimes.

    Regular turnout for performance horses also offers benefits anatomically. A horse is designed to move – like us, if we’re stuck in an office chair, barely moving for 23 hours a day, we’re unlikely to perform at our best athletically.

    Muscles and fascia (connective tissue) create movement and determine skeletal support by the strength, length and tone of these tissues. Muscle fibres alternate between one another for rest and work, allowing them to recover efficiently, and not overwork one specific area. The vast web of fascia links every muscle, bone, organ, ligament, tendon and blood vessel together, and the pivotal role of this system is being increasingly recognised, but there is still little research in horses. Understanding it is changing the way we train human athletes, and so we should be identifying this within our equine counterparts, who are arguably more at risk of injury due to the inability to communicate verbally.

    The fascia not only responds to damage, but also emotional stress. Healthy fascia should glide smoothly to aid range of movement (ROM), but when stressed it becomes inflexible and hard. This constriction leads to limited movement, pain and muscular tension which affects ROM in other areas, causing secondary issues that can be harder to treat. Stable vices, which often have stress as their root cause, and a lack of movement can impede the horse’s ability to work at his optimum, increasing the risk of soft tissue damage, thus further promoting the value of turnout.

    International dressage rider Lara Butler believes in the benefits of turnout whatever the horse’s level or value.

    “Time out in the field or even just hand-grazing is so good; it allows them to get their head down and be a horse,” she says. “The older horses have some time in the field every day, when the ground is good, for mental stimulation – and it is definitely reflected in their work.

    “In winter, we hand-graze when the fields are too wet. They always leave the stable for a second time to use the water treadmill, go hacking, or for further grazing. The younger horses spend most of the day in the field.”

    One of Lara’s top horses, Amiek C (Ampy), has a paddock to use year-round.

    “Ampy must go out daily regardless of the weather to keep him sane,” she says.

    Many performance horses are imported from Europe, where winter conditions also compromise turnout facilities. Netherlands-based Team GBR rider Lottie Fry allocates turnout to her horses on an individual basis.

    “It is dependent on the horse’s needs, there is no set routine,” says Lottie. “You have to know the horse.”

    With over 60 ridden horses at Lottie’s base, the Van Olst stables, it is vital the team have options to suit the needs of each horse.

    “All the horses go on the walker every day and the water treadmill once a week to break up their routine,” Lottie says. “[My European ride] Dark Legend has a small field, which he is out in all winter as it helps his mind.”

    In the southern hemisphere, turnout is encouraged – as described by New Zealand dressage rider Sarah Wilkinson.

    “In New Zealand, my family are involved in racing and no matter the value of the racehorse, they are all turned out,” she says. “I’ve never had a horse colic there, but when I was in Germany there were more horses injured in the stable and more displayed signs of colic than at home.”

    Back in the UK, Yorkshire-based racehorse trainer Ruth Carr is an avid believer in turnout. She turns all her racehorses out together in herds of up to 18 geldings for six hours daily.

    “Mentally it is something for them to look forward to and keeps them interested and racing for longer,” Ruth explains. “They do get kicks and bites, but it’s manageable and the benefits of loosening off and snot naturally draining outweigh this.”

    From a veterinary perspective, Team GBR’s showjumping vet Robrecht Cnockaert is an advocate of turnout.

    “Turnout is an extremely important part of the physical and emotional wellbeing of most sport horses,” he says. “Are there risks? Yes, but many people don’t factor the increased risks that are inherent when a horse is not allowed to have access to the fresh air, sunlight and unrestricted freedom for which they have evolved. Issues such as increased risk of colic, higher incidence of vices, respiratory and circulatory conditions as well as general stiffness can be attributed to lack of turnout.”

    Owners must calculate the pros and cons based on individual horses and their facilities – every option will pose some degree of risk. From my point of view as a soft-tissue therapist, it is fantastic to see attitudes towards turnout changing among professional riders. Turnout throughout winter offers many benefits for performance horses and is now highly advocated by industry professionals across the country and abroad. Hopefully, attitudes of owners and riders will continue to shift, with even more performance horses being offered access to these benefits.

    It is not just the views within equestrian sport people must consider, but those of the public watching our elite equine athletes on the world stage. It is vital the world sees that enabling a horse to “be a horse” is just as important to us as their “job”.

    Ref: 7 January 2021

    Soft tissue therapist to some of the best horse and rider combinations, and working alongside top experts in their field, Dee So’oialo (née Holdsworth) is making her mark on equestrian athletic performance. Dee is one of only 20 therapists in the UK to be qualified in rider and equine fascial manipulation and combining performance analysis with rider strength and conditioning. Dee heads up Dynamic Sports Performance, which supports optimal rider and equine athletic performance and aims to change the way we think about the horse and rider relationship.


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