Who doesn't dream of letting their horses graze in freedom the whole summer? Green grass as far as the eye can see, free movement, natural herd life – it sounds like a horse's dream come true. But is round-the-clock turnout really good for our horses? Can a horse live from pasture alone today? Read here about where problems arise and what you should know before you decide to give your horse 24/7 turnout.
But horses are grass eaters! How can 24/7 turnout be a problem for them?
24/7 turnout means that the horse spends all day and night at pasture and lives primarily on forage, the way his ancestors did in ancient times. Knowing this, one could think that 24/7 turnout is the optimum in horse husbandry, assuming that enough space is available. Let's assume that the pasture you're renting from the farmer is large enough for it. This would at least relieve you of work over the grazing season. If there is also a water supply in the pasture, you'd only need to stop by once in a while. The horses would have unlimited grass, and you'd be free from feeding, mucking out boxes, and all the other work involved. The horse owner gets a holiday, and the turned-out horse is happy, healthy, and content.
What's often overlooked is this: wild horses had unlimited space available to them. There were no fences. When swarms of biting insects got to be too much, they could withdraw to shady forests or move up to higher elevations. They could move on after thoroughly grazing (and fertilising) a field. For most of the year they ate lean grasses and, depending on the season, buds, seeds, twigs and roots. Horses are therefore not purely grass-eating by nature.
The original habitats of horses have long since disappeared from our cultivated landscapes. Steppes and flood plains with poor vegetation, called extensive grasslands, are perhaps still found in nature reserves. Instead of the lean, high-fibre steppe grasses that nourished our horse's free-roaming ancestors, today's domesticated horse is turned out on mostly lush green pastures. Wild horses cover 30 to 40 km per day in the search for food, whilst our horses need only move from one tuft of fertile grass to the next.
Our pastures are primarily filled with high-performance grasses. The sowing of certain grass varieties designed for yield is intended to provide for multiple use or uninterrupted use of pastures in one season. In addition, grazing was practised in earlier times, mainly with cattle, to increase the milk yield and the meat yield. For horses, grazing was reserved for mares with foals and otherwise only used in the rearing of young horses. In many regions today, young stallions, for example the Lipizzaner horses for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, are brought to alpine pastures. For work horses, the question of 24/7 turnout was a moot point anyway, and it was rare that an older horse could "retire" to green pastures.
The tide turned with the arrival of the robust horses in the new open stables of leisure riders. The horse pasture became the "must-have" of any good horse owner, and many an experienced farmer shook his head in disbelief at the sight of trampled and grazed pastures.
From a livestock-keeping perspective, horses are problematic grazing animals. They damage turf with their hooves. They eat plants that taste good to them down to the root, and leave others standing. They defecate in the pastures and ignore the vegetation on the rank patches. This leads to the rapid spread of undesired grasses and weeds, making many pastures unusable after just a few years. In extreme cases, the horses stand up to their bellies in grass all day and find nothing to feed on. Many horse owners disparaged grazing because of neglected fields and less robust horses becoming emaciated and obviously suffering from deficiency symptoms.
An appropriate solution was the marketing of special seed for horse pastures which would make them both productive and tread resistant. But CAUTION: What grows into wonderful green grasses in record time is not really useful for horses. The high-sugar, high-protein, and high-yield grasses, ideal for cattle pastures, caused the horses to become fat when allowed unlimited grazing. Allergies and metabolic disorders began to occur more frequently, and grazing was suddenly considered extremely dangerous for horses. Episodes of laminitis, previously associated with a horse's plundering the feed room, were now attributed to high-protein grasses. As a countermeasure, the horses were put on meadows mown as short as a matchstick, where they then really fell ill.
Today, we know that fructans – the fruit sugars that grasses store more of during times of environmental stress – are responsible for metabolic disorders like laminitis. A horse's metabolism can tolerate an intake of 1–3 g of fructans per day. The fructan levels in pasture grass increase significantly after frosty nights followed by sunny days; in high-sugar grasses they rise to well over the tolerance limit.
Afraid of hurting their horses, some owners keep their darlings away from pasture altogether. The internet is full of horror stories about poisonous plants, laminitis, and other typical pasture diseases. Whether and how long a horse may safely graze is hotly debated in online forums. The most normal thing in the world for horses has become a big problem, the solution to which can be summed up in one sentence:
24/7 turnout depends on the quality of the pasture and on the horse.
Why is 24/7 turnout not suitable for all horses?
Keeping a horse in pasture approximates the horse's natural habitat. The horse's organism is adapted to taking in small portions and to constant slow movement when grazing.
From this we can conclude that the ancestors of our domestic horses were compelled to move around a lot to find enough food. They would have plenty to eat in spring, but the nutrients in wild pasture grasses rapidly declined by the flowering period at the latest. The descendants of the small Pliohippus from 3 million years ago spread out to different regions, adapting optimally to their environments.
Type I, the Northern European Pony, lived in cool climates. The digestive system, starting with the teeth, of these small horses was adapted to hard-stemmed, nutrient-poor forage plants. In cold regions it was necessary to build up fat reserves for the icy winter, so they put on a thick, warming layer of fat during the grazing season and travelled long distances to do so. Their offspring, today's ponies, still strive to accumulate fat reserves in time for the winter. They are prone to obesity and subsequently to EMS if they are allowed to graze without limit.
Type II, the Northern Steppe Horse, lived in the inhospitable, sometimes swampy tundras of Northern Asia and Northern Europe. These placid, relatively solid horses fed on hard or even frozen grass for a large part of the year. Today's draught horses, which are descended from these tundra horses, are known to be easy doers. For horses descended from this original tundra type, 24/7 turnout is only recommended when the grass is already withered or over-mature. They are particularly sensitive to the highly digestible carbohydrates in young grass.
Type III, the Southern Steppe Horse, lived in North Africa and the southern Iberian Peninsula. These fast and hardy horses encountered a highly fluctuating availability of forage. They could eat their fill of nutritious spring grasses, but those grasses withered in the summer heat. To get enough nourishment every day, these horses had to travel long distances, graze the sward down to the roots, and feed on bushes. Horses that are descended from this type, such as thoroughbreds or warmbloods, often do not gain weight easily and so can feed on abundant pasture for long periods. This is not the case with Iberian horses, which are also descended from the primeval steppe horse: they have a higher requirement for lignin and are prone to weight gain, EMS, or insulin resistance (PSSM) when allowed to graze without limit.
Type IV, the Iberian/Mediterranean Horse, lived originally in warm, vegetation-rich regions of Europe and Asia. As the climate began to become increasingly arid, the diminutive horses adapted to the change and began to feed on seeds, grains, and sparse roughage. All "refined" horse breeds, first and foremost Arabian horses, can be traced back to Type IV. This type of horse can manage well with an overabundance of pasture for a while but needs it to be balanced with hard hay or straw. Long-term excess increases the risk of laminitis.
The mixing of the different original types in horse breeding gave rise to our current horse breeds, which are characterised to a greater or lesser extent by one of these four types. It's no wonder that our horses have very individual requirements when it comes to grazing! There's also the factor that we humans keep horses for very different purposes. These range from wanting horses for leisurely hacks to competing in top sport, which in turn comes with quite different requirements regarding management and feeding.
In addition, not many large pastures are located directly outside the barn door. For horses, new surroundings invariably involve psychological strain, i.e., stress. Some horses have an especially hard time with the change – sport horses, for example, which are used to a completely different daily rhythm and are sent out to pasture for recovery, as well as older, less flexible horses.
What does the ideal 24/7 turnout look like?
Lean meadows in hilly terrain with a variety of different grasses and other plants, with bushes, trees and forest, and perhaps a nearby stream, are ideal for horses. But such pastures, where the horse finds everything it needs, are rare these days. A pasture where horses are to live 24/7 must fulfil a few requirements. Horses can consume more than 50 kg of grass per day, so you would need about 0.1 hectare per 100 kg of body weight for each horse. A robust 700 kg warmblood alone would then need almost ¾ of a hectare!
The more space, the less impact from hoof damage and soil compaction. Even then, pasture management is essential: horse pastures require maintenance. Bottom line: 24/7 turnout doesn't mean less work for the horse owner! In spring, the pasture must be dragged to even out mole hills and hoofprints. Matted grass must be "curried" to let in air for new growth. Bare patches and muddy ground, such as around a watering hole, must be re-seeded every year. Rank patches must be mowed regularly if alternate grazing with ruminants is not possible and horse droppings cannot be collected regularly.
Tip: When poo-picking, leave a few piles in some places; horses then often use these places to defecate, and you'll save yourself kilometres of walking.
Nip thistles and other weeds in the bud to keep them from spreading. Poisonous plants like autumn crocuses and ragwort unfortunately must be removed by hand. The fence must be controlled and the areas around it mown. And if you want nutritious grass to grow next year, you can't get around fertilisation.
Tip: A soil sample taken from the pasture will tell you which nutrients the soil is lacking, and should be provided through fertilisation.
Lush pastures containing high-yield grasses and white clover are not suitable for 24/7 turnout. As pretty as these green fields look, they are not the right pastures for horses. The younger, greener, and leafier the grass, the more sugar and protein it contains. Some particularly high-yielding grass varieties are real sugar bombs and increase the incidence of pasture diseases. When no other, less "fattening" areas are available, horses may be turned out for limited periods and then fed low-nutrient hay and straw the rest of the time. Turnout should not be too short, however: horses quickly learn what an hour of turnout means, and will compensate by eating more quickly! Major problems in pasture management arise when the herd is a mixed bag, with everything from miniature Shetland ponies to large warmbloods.
Tip: Some manufacturers already offer low-fructan seed mixes for seeding and re-seeding horse pastures. Low-fructan grasses include red fescue, meadow foxtail, and cock's foot, for example. Horses can graze longer on nutrient-poor pastures – after a careful transition, of course. Nevertheless, regular control of the plant stock is recommended, as high-sugar grasses can spread from other areas.
Moist or wet soils will be too heavily trampled by the horses and thus are not suitable for extended turnout periods. In addition, parts of these areas tend to become mossy, inviting the oribatid mite – an intermediate host for the tapeworm.
Steep slopes without level surfaces are also unsuitable, as they put too much strain on the horses' joints and tendons.
How do I set up a pasture for 24/7 turnout?
If horses don't have a protective shelter to escape the heat, downpours, and biting insects, grazing can become a torment. Many serious grazing accidents are due to panic running away from the pests, and even some fences won't stop a horse fleeing from biting insects!
Most horses have no problem with summer rains. However, the combination of rain and wind can be quite unpleasant on cool days. The shelter should therefore be closed on at least two sides, in any case providing shelter from the wind. Strip doors will keep pesky insects at bay. The shelter must be large enough to accommodate all the horses and must be designed in such a way that alpha horses cannot block the entrance for others. The floor in the shelter must be paved and mucked out regularly. Otherwise, soil compaction, excrement, and urine will quickly form an unsavoury muddy surface, and the subsequent germs can lead to hoof diseases. Horses prefer dry surfaces anyway.
24/7 turnout requires uninterrupted access to drinking water. Horses drink very little water as long as their pasture grass is still young and juicy, but they will need more as the grass ages. Hot temperatures can raise water intake in the pasture to approx. 1.8 l / hour! The water drinker must be able to supply enough water for several horses, always work, and stay clean. Drinking buckets or masonry tubs are not an option for 24/7 turnout! Water tanks or 1,000-litre containers must be well-insulated to keep the water algae-free in the summer.
Fencing is a very important factor in turning out horses. The fence must be adequately visible so that a running horse can still apply the brakes in time. It must also act as a deterrent so that no pony, no matter how greedy, will decide to pay a visit to the neighbour's clover field. Clearly visible electric fences are a good way to keep horses in the pasture safely. Fences must be checked regularly. Bare wires as well as fencing for game and sheep are unsuitable and pose a high risk of injury. Barbed wire should never be used for animal pastures!
Tip: If you decide to place your horse at pasture for the summer, enquire in advance about the type of fencing used. This can prevent unpleasant surprises!
Can a horse live from 24/7 turnout alone?
When feeding hay and concentrate feed, one can make fairly precise calculations about the rations a particular horse needs for his level of work, and how these should be assembled. Horses at pasture should also have access to hay or a hay-straw mix to ensure adequate supplies of raw fibre and dry matter.
Tip: Feed should be put out in a covered area or in a covered rack to keep it from spoiling. For easy doers, you can simply put a whole bale of straw in the rack for them to nibble on as needed.
Nevertheless, ration calculations for horses turned out 24/7 will be inevitably inaccurate. Although it is possible to estimate the composition, you can never know exactly how much pasture grass a horse really eats in 24 hours.
During the growing seasons, the substances in grasses vary greatly, their quantity depending on the weather, temperatures and precipitation. You therefore can't depend on pasture grass to provide all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that your horse needs. Pasture grass does contain sufficient vitamin A (or the precursor, beta-carotene), but the content decreases as the stems become woody. The vitamin E content of forage varies from region to region and may be inadequate. Depending on the soil conditions, there may also be deficiencies in important nutrients like calcium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, and selenium. Deficiencies of these substances weaken the immune system over time and often become apparent only after the grazing season. Pasture horses must be provided with a good, balancing mineral feed and have access to a salt lick!
Caution: Horses especially need a sufficient supply of calcium when they are kept at pasture. Calcium deficiencies in growing horses lead to bone distortions and bone inflammations, and subsequently to lameness!
Horses that are not ridden at all, or are ridden very little, can live on pasture grass alone during the summer months if a good mineral feed is added. Unless the grass is over-mature, pasture grass will certainly meet these horses' protein needs. However, the energy content of the feed may no longer be sufficient from summer onwards, so keep an eye on the horse's condition. If the pasture's nutritional value decreases, hay must be added, as well as concentrate feed in the case of working horses.
Older horses in particular benefit from turnout. As long as the incisors are still intact and the senior horse has no physical infirmities, food intake should pose no problems. However, only well-fed senior horses can manage without supplemental feeds. Senior horses should be given free access to hay and provided concentrate feed as needed. Caution: Older horses have higher mineral requirements!
Tip: If you must provide supplemental feed to your turned-out horse, look for feeds with a low protein content to prevent metabolic overload. You can increase the feed's energy content with oils like linseed oil.
Which horses should not be given 24-hour turnout?
24-hour turnout is not suitable for horses with metabolic disorders like EMS or PSSM, nor for horses that are overweight.
Horses that have already had laminitis should be allowed to graze only for limited periods on over-mature pastures or on fenced-off areas of pastures and should also be fed low-nutrient hay and straw. Laminitis is caused by toxins that form in the large intestine through the breakdown of high amounts of fructans. This leads to hyperacidity of the intestinal environment, killing off good gut bacteria. The resulting toxins enter the bloodstream via the intestinal wall and subsequently the horse's hooves. Horses prone to laminitis should ideally graze in the afternoon when the grass's fructan content is at its lowest.
Caution: Feeding your horse yeasts, effective microorganisms, or lactic acid bacteria is counterproductive in the case of a gut flora imbalance and harms the horse!
Tip: Herbs that contain bitter substances have positive effects on bile secretion and regulate gut motility. This inhibits putrefaction processes in the intestine and strengthens the intestinal mucosa. Bitter substances are found in yarrow, oak bark, wormwood, and dandelion root.
Ponies are prone to weight gain when turned out on lush pastures, which can lead to metabolic disorders. For ponies, it is better to portion off sections of the pasture with electric fencing, or else to limit their grazing time.
Horses with allergies and/or sweet itch should only be turned out if conditions are favourable. Pasture grass that's high in sugar and protein can make symptoms worse. When gnats and black flies are about and causing sweet itch, the itching horses need a place to retreat to and will welcome a walled, dark stable where they can escape the insects and eat their hay in peace. Some horses suffering from sweet itch are under constant stress and may panic from any kind of stinging insect!
Insect traps are not effective over very large areas, and even the best repellents will only work for a few hours.
Tip: Timely strengthening of the immune system through herbs like echinacea and rose hips can help prepare sensitive horses for the grazing season. In addition, horses with allergies are often affected by detoxification disorders, which lead to an increased histamine release. It is possible that these histamines trigger allergic reactions in the skin as well as in the respiratory tract. You can support your allergy-suffering horse with herbal cures that strengthen the liver and kidney and activate the metabolism. Suitable herbs for this are milk thistle, stinging nettle, dandelion, and birch leaves.
24/7 turnout is not recommended for horses that are used frequently for riding or driving. The plentiful forage on the pasture will quickly give the horse a grass belly, which interferes with sporting activities and hinders breathing, and the moisture-rich grass make horses more prone to sweating. However, sport horses should be given time to relax at pasture!
Tip: Give your horse electrolytes to compensate for a loss of nutrients through heavy perspiration. If you reduce time at pasture, provide more hay accordingly!
Caution: The pear-shaped grass belly that results from eating large amounts of pasture grass may indicate that the grass is lacking in nutrients. The horse then tries to compensate for this deficiency by eating more.
And it shouldn't be forgotten that, for some horses, grazing means psychological stress. A horse that is accustomed to a loose box or paddock will not automatically feel comfortable in an unfamiliar pasture. The transition can be as stressful as moving yard! If the herd is also newly assembled, the stress levels rise dramatically. Quite a few stable-kept horses pace restlessly at the gate for hours after they are transitioned to pasture, wanting to go home! For these horses, turnout is anything but relaxing. If their discomfort does not improve even after patient familiarisation, it is better to do without 24/7 turnout altogether.
Tip: If your horse generally has problems adjusting to new environments, you can make the transition to pasture easier through herbs that are known to calm and strengthen the nerves. Valerian, lemon balm, and hops help to relieve anxiety, nervousness and tension and can thus help your horse enjoy his turnout!
Sources and further reading
- Coenen, M., & Vervuert, I. (2020). Pferdefütterung (6. Ausg.). Stuttgart: Georg Theme Verlag KG.
- Fritz, C. (2002). Pferde fit füttern. München.
- Fritz, C., & Maleh, S. (2016). Zivilisationskrankheiten des Pferdes. Thieme.
- Schäfer, M. (2007). Handbuch Pferdebeurteilung (2. Ausg.). Stuttgart: Franck-Kosmos.
- Vanselow, R. U. (2005). Pferdweide - Weidelandschaft. Hohenwarsleben: Westarp Wissenschaften-Verlagsgesellschaft.
- von Grone, J. (1997). Die Pferdeweide. Cham: Müller Rüschlikon.