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What is ESSENTIAL exercise for a horse?

May 15, 2021
Equiculture - What is ESSENTIAL exercise for a horse?

Horses require daily exercise because they are essentially grazing athletes. This does not mean that you have to ride them every day (or even at all) but you do need to provide the right environment so that they can move enough to stay healthy, or, provide structured exercise (or both).

Providing actual exercise (or exercise opportunities) is a very important part of caring for a horse. It is not acceptable to keep horses confined in small spaces without providing lots of opportunities for movement.

Lack of movement leads to obesity problems which in turn leads to issues such as Laminitis - a dangerous condition of the hooves.

It can also lead to stereotypic behaviour problems as a horse is 'hard wired' to move and will attempt to do so even when prevented from doing so (hence 'box walking', 'weaving', etc.).

Why do horses need to move so much?

Horses rely on movement to keep their circulation working properly (both blood and lymphatic fluid circulation). Every step a horse takes helps to keep their circulation working by ‘pumping’ blood and lymphatic fluid back up the legs.

The hoof of the horse has evolved to expand and absorb the downward pressure of the horse (as the hoof touches the ground) and contract to push fluids back up again as the hoof leaves the ground.

This is the reason that horses that do not move enough tend to develop ‘filled legs’ which is where the lower legs fill with fluid due to the horse standing still for too long. This fluid usually disappears once the horse is exercised. However, it can become a chronic condition in horses that are over-confined long term.

Horses that are confined without the right kind of exercise opportunities will also suffer mentally. The Covid Pandemic (and its subsequent lockdowns) has really brought it home to people just what it feels like to have their freedoms restricted. Even some people who previously thought that confining horses to stables etc. was acceptable have now started to empathise more with horses in this situation.

Horses that are kept in small yards or stables should either be turned out daily onto pasture (preferably with other horses) or into a larger area (again preferably with other horses). Being with other horses increases their movement. The best way to maximise movement is to turn horses out to graze with other horses. They will then walk steadily for several hours. This is the most ideal form of basic exercise for a horse (more on this later).

Does being turned out in 'individual' 'private' paddocks (common in boarding/agistment/livery yards) count as being 'turned out with other horses'? No, not really. Obviously, it is better than not being turned out at all but horses cannot carry out their normal behaviours if they are separated by fences. These behaviors include 'mutual grooming' and play sessions but also moving as a herd around a grazing area.

How much do free-living horses move?

Horses are naturally very active animals. In the wild/feral situation horses cover many miles/kilometers a day. They travel between where the water is (the water hole) and where feed is (grassland pasture) in what is termed a 'home range'. This home range is just large enough to contain the resources that they need.

In an area/region/country that has more abundant resources (such as many parts of Europe) the home range will be relatively smaller (but still much larger than a horse property). When the resources are very scarce (such as for the feral horses of Australia) the home range is much larger.

The feed near to the water hole is eaten out first, so for much of the year, horses have to travel increasingly larger distances to obtain the variety of plants and the volume that they need to keep them healthy. This keeps them moving for many hours a day.

This movement is mainly steady walking (grazing as they go) interspersed with bouts of faster movement. If the feed is abundant there will also be lots of time for play (mainly in young horses, and colts in a 'bachelor group').

So in the free-living situation horses are not moving just for the fun of it (unless they are playing), they are moving out of necessity. They have to move to feed because the feed does not come to them. An important point when you think about it.

When we keep horses in captivity they usually do not get enough exercise because it is difficult to provide the actual space for this to happen. We would need to have several hundred acres available for horsekeeping if we want to keep horses ‘naturally’.

It is however possible to do a good job of keeping horses in captivity without having so much land as long as you understand why movement is so important to a horse and how much a horse needs to move. You can then attempt to provide the right conditions so that the horse can move as much as possible.

Is turnout on pasture good enough exercise for a horse?

Yes and no:

Horses that live at pasture with other horses in a herd will generally exercise themselves, especially if the pasture is biodiverse. This is because horses walk around looking for variety (as they would in the wild).

Horses walk while grazing, looking for variety (as they would in the wild). If a paddock has good biodiverse pasture this makes a horse move more. Horses have to keep walking in order to continuously find new plants.

Horses that are turned out alone – even if it is in a pasture with good grazing – tend to spend more time standing around (usually where they can see other horses) rather than grazing and walking sufficiently. They also miss out on opportunities for mutual grooming and play behaviour.

As already mentioned, horses will not move just for the sake of it (even though it is good for them) unless they are grazing/playing or are being exercised. If you turn a horse out for the day into a bare pasture he or she may run around for the first few minutes, to use up the excess energy that has built up from being confined overnight, but then they will stand around waiting to be fed/let back in (to where the supplementary feed is).

Horses that are turned out to graze alone will also tend to stand around more, even if there is pasture to eat. Some will actually do the opposite and carry out stereotypical behaviours such as 'fence walking' - not good for the horse or the land!

This horse is 'running the fenceline' even though there are other horses in neighbouring paddocks. Very dangerous behaviour and bad for the land.

So pasture turnout will usually provide good exercise for a horse if:

  • Horses are turned out together.

  • The pasture is biodiverse, low sugar and highly fibrous.

  • The horse/s are not already obese.

Pasture turnout will not usually provide good enough exercise for a horse if:

  • Horses are turned out alone.

  • The pasture is a monoculture, short stressed and high sugar.

  • Horses are already obese.

What is good exercise for a horse exactly?

The best form of exercise is lots of slow steady movement which is what horses do when grazing. Occasional bursts of speed are also good for horses. A healthy horse does this regularly because it is part of normal horse behaviour. Healthy horses will do this voluntarily on a regular basis when turned out together in a paddock.

Keep in mind that paddocks need to be safe enough so that horses can move fast without injuring themselves. This is why paddocks with rounded corners are better than square corners for groups of horses. The rounded corners keep the fast-moving animals moving around a corner rather than into it.

How large should a horse pasture be?

It depends. An acre per horse is often quoted as being necessary but it really depends on how that land is set up and how horses are allowed or encouraged to use it. Read this article www.equiculture.net/the-equicentral-system for lots of ideas.

 So can horses take care of their own exercise needs?

Yes and no:

  • Provided with enough grazing, plus companions, as long as that pasture is fibrous and not too high in sugar, then probably yes.
  • Turned out alone, on high sugar plants, for a horse that is already too fat, then no.
  • Turned out on a surfaced area, without grazing, but with hay, also no.

If no then you need to provide structured exercise. Look out for a blog article coming soon about traditional and novel forms of exercise for horses (and you).

If you are interested in learning about creating more movement through better land management sign up for our free mini-course about Horses, Pasture and Grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course or have look at our books/course on our website www.equiculture.net

This article is one of the Equiculture Essentials articles for members of our Facebook Group for novice horse riders and owners (there are also lots of equine professionals, as well as ourselves, to give help and advice) - anyone can join: www.facebook.com/groups/novicehorseriderowner - hope to see you there :)

There are also lots of other free articles/videos about sustainable horse management and riding on this blog

Jane xxx