Group turnout for horses: what are the pros and cons? *H&H Plus*

  • How can we maximise the benefits of field time, while minimising risk? Kieran O’Brien MRCVS offers advice for trouble-free turnout

    Horses in their natural state are free-ranging, social animals. While separate confinement in a stable is necessary if they are to be individually fed and managed, maximum turnout, where possible, should be provided.

    Turnout reduces the risk of colic, respiratory diseases and the development of stereotypical behaviour, while supporting muscle and joint health. Grazing in groups allows coordinated patterns of movement, social experience and mutual grooming, all of which are vitally important for the welfare of animals ill-adapted to a solitary life.

    There are negative aspects, however, the most significant being increased risk of injury. In a survey of 652 UK owners, 40% reported that their horses had suffered a traumatic injury in the previous year – 62% of which occurred while at grass. Results showed that horses grazed in a large group or recently introduced to the herd were most vulnerable. Kicks or incidents with field fencing were the most common causes of injury.

    Other hazards at grass include exposure to biting flies and intestinal parasites, and obesity and laminitis due to excessive grass intake – all of which can be avoided with careful planning.

    Taking sides

    Interaction across a fence – often with a mare on one side and a gelding on the other – is probably the most common cause of fence-related injuries.

    One horse typically strikes out through the fence. It is safer to separate such groups by placing a strand of electric wire along the top of the fence or, better still, a strand near the top on each side. Horses will then come close to the fence but will not lean over.

    Alternatively, a separate, single-strand electric fence can be erected on one side, parallel to the main fence. This also stops hungry horses leaning through the fence to access grass on the other side.

    Sheep fencing is especially dangerous and should only be used with an additional safeguard.

    A gate between fields is another contact point. Although useful for “pre-exposure” of a new horse to others, a gate should be “sheeted” to prevent limb injury if a horse kicks through it. Attach plastic stockboard sheets with strong cable ties, ensuring they overlap by at least 15cm.

    Shock tactics

    P6MM48 Gestuet Graditz, electric fence secured coupling fence

    Electric fences allow paddocks to be divided cheaply and safely. They can be used to separate horses and thus prevent kicking, to limit the grazing area for weight and laminitis control, and to restrict space for horses being rehabilitated from injury.

    With a little thought, electric fencing can be made as safe as possible. Otherwise, injuries can occur – and may be very severe. Apart from stake wounds from the plastic posts, most injuries happen when the horse becomes entangled in the fencing.

    An electric fence should have two properties: it should hurt when touched, and should break easily if a horse runs or kicks through it or rolls into it.

    Horses will only respect an electric fence if it gives them a suffifficiently severe shock when they touch it. Manufacturers of the energisers, which power the fence, say that a weak or absent shock is in 90% of cases due to failure to earth (ground) the fence properly. The earth stake should be as long as possible and pushed its whole length into the ground.

    A good tip is to pour a bucket of water over the stake when it is in the ground to ensure good contact, and to keep it wet. The fence must be regularly checked for contact with vegetation, which reduces the strength of the pulse.

    Choose an energiser with the highest output you can afford. Two rechargeable batteries (one in use, and one charged and ready when required) are the minimum needed.

    There is no need for the fence to be strong; the risk of an electric shock is what deters the horse, and it is not intended that the fence restrains the horse physically. If he runs through it, the fence should break rather than be dragged and eventually become wrapped around the horse’s legs.

    It is generally agreed that plain metal electrified wire should not be used with horses,
    as it is virtually unbreakable. It follows that, except in very windy sites where there may be no alternative, electric fence rope – which is extremely strong – may also be inappropriate. The thin plastic string breaks most easily; concerns about its visibility are overstated.

    One has to question why, except in the case of small ponies, more than one strand of fencing is required. Using two or three strands presents more opportunities for the fence to fail to break, or to wrap around the horse’s legs if he goes through it.

    Breakpoints are easy to make using two cable ties. This method works well for the narrow tape and rope, but experiment to see how tight the cable ties must be for your fence to slide through the breakpoint when force is applied.

    Safety first

    In any group of horses, there is a social hierarchy enforced mostly by threat – using often quite subtle body language, rather than violence. Kick injuries are common when new arrivals join the group, or when lower-ranking horses fail to respond to threats.

    Sometimes, a horse simply cannot get out of the way quickly enough.

    Lower leg wounds and overreaches from a forelimb being struck by a hindleg can be prevented by putting boots on the horse before turnout.

    Tendon boots do not prevent tendon overstrain injuries but, if they contain a rigid band at the back, will protect the tendons from being struck into. Soft neoprene boots provide some protection against brushing but little else.

    Loss of shoes can be prevented by shoeing the horse “tighter”, so the shoe does not protrude beyond the heels at the back, and by shortening the usual shoeing interval by a minimum of a week.

    Another option is to turn the horse out in overreach boots (choose one size larger than normal, so they reach the ground), or to wrap the forefeet with duct tape to cover any part of the shoes extending beyond the heels.

    Rounded fencing

    Turnout tips

    Take the following steps to help to keep horses out of trouble:

    ● Keep the group size as small as possible (pairs of horses are a ideal) and the composition stable. Avoid moving horses between groups.
    ● Aim for a large age spread within the group. There is more aggression when horses of a similar age, such as yearlings, are kept together.
    ● Turn out a newcomer on his own fifirst, so that he can familiarise himself with the paddock layout. Then slowly add the others, one at a time, starting with the less dominant.
    ● If possible, remove the hind shoes when first introducing horses to each other. Turnout rugs may offer protection from kicks and blows.
    ● Identify the aggressive repeat offffenders and graze them separately, preferably with a much lower ranking horse who knows to keep out of the way.
    ● Check there are no places where lower-ranking horses can become trapped and bullied. Rounding offff paddock corners will help.
    ● Keep the sexes apart. There is far less kicking when geldings are kept separate from mares.

    Also published in H&H 4 March 2021

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