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Stall Versus Acreage

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, discusses developmental concerns when raising a young horse.

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Q.  What are the potential effects of raising a young horse in a stall versus letting him grow up on acreage?


A.  As a precocious animal, a young horse is ready to run within hours of birth. Continual movement and limb loading provide important stimulus to develop the growing horses’ musculoskeletal structures. In the initial year and a half of life, a young horse’s skeletal structures lengthen and mineralize, and all soft tissues improve in strength, flexibility, elasticity and adaptability. Confining a young horse predisposes him to lameness from joint or tendon issues, can hinder hoof development and increases his risk for intestinal problems.

Significance of Turnout on Bone and Joints
A young horse readily learns to use his body in the early months and years of his life if allowed pasture turn out. His athletic antics arm him with experience and agility that he can incorporate into future athletic activities. At the same time, particularly in his first 6 months, exercise elicits adaptive responses in long bones and in joint cartilage. Studies reveal that young horses given exercise in unrestricted turnout (24/7) develop better bone density and experience far less incidence of developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) as compared to stall-confined youngsters.

Confining a young horse limits development of muscle tone and causes disuse atrophy of various musculoskeletal structures, including cartilage in his joints. Thinner joint cartilage is not as well protected from impact stress, so when the young horse does begin rigorous training, he can potentially develop inflammation that leads to arthritic changes.

Significance of Turnout on Foot Development
For a young horse to reach his athletic potential, all his physical structures must work in harmony and with as much strength and comfort as possible. A horse’s feet must develop properly in his young, growing years to favorably affect his future soundness. For at least the first several years, the hoof is dependent on regular exercise and turnout to stimulate its development. Horse owners have a tendency to want to control a young horse’s environment by confining him to a stall or in a small paddock for fear of injury in turnout. Ironically, this practice limits a young horse’s chance for adaptation to develop a mature and substantial foot. Veterinarians and farriers remark that there is a great difference between the feet of horses raised with the ability to self-exercise in turnout compared to horses confined to small, nonstimulating environments.

It is not just turnout that is important, but also the surface on which a young horse’s feet adapt. A horse that is only exposed to soft footing may not adequately stress the hoof enough to build thicker and tougher soles and a thicker bridge between collateral cartilages. Regardless of breed, poorly developed hoof structures are less able to withstand the impact of training.

Significance of Turnout on Intestinal Health
Because light physical activity stimulates gastrointestinal motility, it is best to avoid stalling a horse for long periods, regardless of age. In horses with access to turnout and exercise, fiber digestibility increases up to 20 percent. This improves retention of the fluid part of the horse’s diet and promotes movement of particulate materials down the intestinal tract. More efficient digestion limits development of impaction colic.  Access to free grazing in pasture also limits the risk of gastric ulcers.

Summary
The best horsekeeping strategies include providing ample turnout on acreage for your young, growing horse. You will delight in watching him play in the pasture, while his physical prowess and strength develop and his mind explores a rich environment.

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Stall Versus Acreage

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Reader Comments

Karen    Shelbyville, TN

4/28/2011 10:38:07 AM

Those young bones need the sun! The sun provides Vitamin D that helps to absorb calcium into the bones. Let the sun shine down!

Lauren    St. Charles, MO

2/5/2009 6:14:34 AM

I recommend keeping any horses in a well-kept pasture. My horse was a little overweight, but when I moved him (he is now outside 24/7 with a blanket on him when it's too cold out and plenty of hay), he lost a lot of the excess weight and looks really good. At first I had shoes on him after I moved him, but I decided to leave him barefoot, and his hooves are still durable! Keeping young horses outside gives there tendons and joints more time to grow properly. You can also prevent some of the "jitters" young horses have. A horses hooves also become stronger and less prone to cracks, as long as you leave his/her shoes off.

Valerie    Anza, CA

8/13/2007 1:46:58 PM

I recently bought an 8-month-old colt to grow up with my 4-month-old colt. My colt from birth always had access to my 2-acre pasture with trees and hills, mostly sand but with rocks. The 8-month-old colt was born and raised by himself in a paddock with little more than 50 feet to run in one direction without having to turn. He looked healthy and in good weight but after one week of being in my pasture with my other two colts, he has developed muscles in his sides, seems much more relaxed and seems to mentally be on the same developmental level as these 4-month-olds. He, however, is getting the bugs out of his system when he plays with the other colts and is much less tense than when I first met him. Not everyone has the option of large areas in which to turn out their horses full-time. I wish more people would understand the benefits of this instead of keeping horses for selfish reasons (protecting their investment in their expensive horses) or not taking the time to let their horses be horses.

Anna    Birmingham, AL

7/11/2007 11:30:42 AM

The barn i ride at has 3 young foals that they keep out in the pasture. I know that it helps them health wise, but putting foals in a stall confines their joy. Every day, the three foals run through the pasture and kick their legs up. It's so cute, and I think happy foals make a happy horse.

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