All too often I see people locking their horses in stalls with blankets and boots and everything short of bubble wrap. They won’t turn their horse out with a buddy for fear of injury and avoid even individual turnout in the winter. These horses remain clean and free from injury, save the occasional exercise-related injury that could befall any horse. Some would say these horses receive the best possible care and are in perfect health.
I would like to challenge that opinion.
Physically, these horses are blemish free. However, mentally these horses are a mess. They spend all day bored save the few hours of forced exercise or turnout time. They tend to shut down and resent their living situation. The look in these horse’s eyes changes from a soft look of relaxed contentment to a dull look of depression. Sometimes these horses even get a hard glint of anger in their eye. If you look at enough horses you’ll start to be able to pick out which of them are content and which of them are not.
Those horses with the wonderfully soft, content eyes are often in pasture full time. Many of them have scars and patches of missing fur. They may have the occasional lost shoe, pulled muscle, or even a strained tendon. They aren’t always in perfect health and it can be hard to keep their weight ideal, but these horses are happy.
To me, horse management is a delicate balance between maintaining the horse’s mental and physical health. I try to keep all of my horses in a herd setting not just for all the documented benefits of pasture life, but also for the horses’ mental health. Many of these horses require hours spent feeding extra hay and supplemental grain to maintain their weight. They have blemishes and scars from playing or getting into the odd fight. Their physical health might not be perfect all the time, but their mental health is pretty good. I consider this a win.
Occasionally a horse gets injured. This is when the balance becomes especially tricky to find.
If the injury is severe the horse might be on mandatory stall rest. Lots of attention, toys, and 24/7 hay can help, but the horse’s mental health will invariably decline in the short term. Injuries are no fun for anyone.
With minor injuries that may be painful, but don’t require rest to heal, you have more options. If the horse wants to stay out and you can find a way to keep the affected area wrapped or clean enough to prevent an infection, let the horse stay with his herd. If the horse is miserable outside and would rather the comfort of a bedded stall with no one to disturb his rest then bring the horse in. Sometimes daily turnout in a pasture is a better option because it allows the horse some social time while also giving him plenty of time to rest and relieve the injury. Pasture turnout can allow for a good balance between physical and mental health.
This delicate balance varies from individual to individual, which is what makes it hard to find. There are no hard and fast rules, just guidelines and a goal of perfect mental and physical health. I would rather have the lame horse with an abscess limping around outside, as happy as he can be considering he has an abscess, than the sound horse sitting in a stall silently begging someone to release him. After all, time, movement, and plenty of soaking will fix the abscess in time. Sitting around miserable doesn’t really help even if it makes the owner feel better.
No one likes seeing a horse suffering, but some people have been taught not to see mental suffering. Once you take the blinder off you can’t unsee it. The look of anxiety, depression, or unhappiness hurts my heart. Hopefully you will all go to the barn today and look around with open eyes. Are you balancing your horse’s physical and mental health?