Turning Horses Away

Today was a big day for Otis. He moved from his individual paddock, of medium size and of fairly flat ground, to a small herd of retired geldings in a large field on a gentle hill. As the vet recommended turning him away for a few months to allow the sidebone to completely settle down I made a big decision.

I didn`t think it was very fair on Otis to be turned away in his individual paddock. He`d be isolated and I would feel it necessary to bring him in and groom him a few times a week to break up his days and provide some stimulation for him. Which would mean that I would be more aware of his level of soundness and be more tempted to bring him back into work when he was sound. Furthermore in his individual paddock he’d need poo-picking, feed and hay every day. Which, as selfish as it sounds, is a chore when you get very little back in terms of riding. Plus my summer is looking pretty hectic so I needed to work out how to best balance things out.

Then I was talking to a friend who has his retired gelding (who used to be Otis’s field mate a couple of years ago) in a small herd and it came to me. If Otis was to spend a few months there it would be a far more natural environment with social stimulation for him. The field is more interesting and I hope the gentle slope will keep him fit and there’s high hedges for shelter, and plenty of grazing for him. The deal there is that the horses are checked twice a day and fed a small hard feed each morning by the yard, and they maintain the field. Which means that whilst I’m struggling with the feeling that I’ve abandoned Otis, this arrangement has taken the pressure off me for the summer and means I’m not tempted to bring him back into work for a while. Which is the best thing for both of us at the moment. Then I can just go and see Otis a couple of times a week, give him some attention and fuss, and enjoy being around him without the frustrations of him not being rideable. Then hopefully in the autumn he will be ready to come back into work. 

What are everyone’s thoughts on turning horses away? 

I’ve always thought that it can either be good or bad for horses. I don’t always like the sudden change for horses, particularly eventers, who go from a full on competition schedule to being left in the field twenty four-seven. It just strikes me as going from one extreme to the other. However, for some horses it can be very beneficial to their approach to work.

If you’ve struggled to establish a rapport or the ground rules with a horse, perhaps one who has had a bad start to life or is very nervous or boisterous, then turning them away may not be the best idea as you can take a few steps back in their training and confidence levels. In which case you’d be better off keeping their routine but reducing their workload: perhaps fewer sessions a week, more hacks than schooling, or some ground work/desensitisation work instead of physical exercise. So you are continuing their education lightly and maintaining your relationship with them. Then perhaps when they are a bit more mature mentally, they would benefit from a short, complete break.

I do think that it’s important to have the right facilities to turn a horse away, especially a youngster who needs to hierarchy of a herd to make them toe the line. Large fields with a variety of terrain, forages, well matched groups, which will provide the most natural environment for them and allow them to just be horses are very important. Some yards can’t cater for this, in which case it may be worth doing what I’ve done and moving him; or keeping the basic daily routine of coming in the same and reducing the workload so they don’t get too bored and get into mischief because of lack of stimulation.

Why do people turn horses away?

The traditional sense of turning horses away is during the winter they are three – so they’ve been backed, begun their education, and then are allowed to reflect on their learning whilst also maturing.

Alternatively, competition or hunt horses are roughed off in the off season so that they can physically and mentally recover from the season. 

For most amateur rider owners, their horses are in light work, so there isn’t necessarily the need to turn them away for long periods. If their workload is varied – hacking, dressage, jumping – then they are unlikely to become stale. In which case giving them easy weeks every so often, where they have the week off or just hack for a few days, can be just as beneficial for the horse, and means yours or their routine isn’t disrupted too much. 

Earlier I mentioned that hunters are often roughed off to allow them to recover physically from the season. Time does seem to be the best healer, and I’ve come to the conclusion that when vets are involved in treating a horse for an injury they often neglect to suggest field rest. They prescribe box rest and then introduction to gentle work, increasing the work load over a couple of months until the horse is back in full work. Obviously you can’t go straight from box rest to complete turn out, but it would be nice to hear vets prescribe a slow transition (depending on the time of year) from box rest to field rest and then a few months of total field rest to allow the horse to recover completely before bringing them back into work. If I could go back in time, after Otis’s box rest I would have increased his time in the field without walk work. As it was November I’d have kept him stabled at night until February or March, and then turned him out completely for a couple of months before bringing him back into work. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Regardless of your facilities and opinion on turning horses away, I think they can all have mini breaks – like a half term holiday – to let them recharge, and if you can provide a stimulating, natural environment for them to have a longer break then they can also benefit from this. The worst scenario I feel, is a horse being turned away and is out all the time but with no company or space to roam. I hope Otis settles into this new routine and enjoys his time in a herd. Certainly when I left him he was wrapped up in a mutual grooming session.

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