Ask the Experts: Turnout for Dressage Horses

A veterinarian specializing in performance horse care discusses the benefits of turnout for dressage horses.
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A veterinarian specializing in performance horse care discusses the benefits of turnout for dressage horses.

Question: Is it better for dressage horses to remain safely inside or be out in the paddock during the day?

Answer: Contrary to popular belief, I do think it entirely possible to condition dressage horses to enjoy turnout exercise. The large majority of prospects imported from Europe, where space is simply not available to accommodate large pastures, have become accustomed to exercise under tack and time spent on a walker. So the early stages of acclimating them to freedom require careful planning, appropriate facilities and, in my opinion, the judicious use of tranquilizers.

In my experience, horses permitted turn-out exercise generally enjoy superior health, fitness and mental well-being. These horses get to stretch themselves, exercise more and are, therefore, fitter, less bored, develop fewer vices, are less hyper and much easier to train and deal with than their confined peers.

I find it remarkable how well behaved many dressage horses are considering they spend about 22 to 23 hours per day in a 12-by-12-foot room. The risk of injury, which is the mantra of trainers who resist turnout exercise, is, in my opinion, entirely overstated.

Horses that lock their stifles or have difficulty maintaining smooth stifle function because of lack of fitness are dramatically and quickly improved by turnout exercise. Horses allowed turnout exercise before being ridden generally stretch their backs and can often avoid the back strain so common in this discipline. Horses with allergic respiratory conditions benefit immensely by avoiding barn dust and the increased humidity in most stables.

Allowed to relax and have a quiet moment devoid of human contact, many horses improve significantly in demeanor. We forget that, perhaps, the horse does not consider the human his best friend, but would prefer a member of his own species.

To begin acclimating long-confined horses to turnout exercise requires paddocks of appropriately small sizes. A round pen suits this purpose especially well. Sedation given by a competent veterinarian with a combination of acepromazine and Rompun, combined with a flake of alfalfa hay, works well. Each day the horse can be allowed out and will be happy to stay out longer; usually with less of the combination of tranquilizers. It has been my experience that acepromazine alone is inadequate to begin with. But using it in combination with Rompun makes sedation possible so that gradual accommodation to freedom occurs.

Once the horse has become comfortable in the round pen and sedation is no longer necessary, we graduate him to a larger paddock, again utilizing sedation with the combination of drugs. Some horses like company, some don't. Some need to see another horse nearby, some don't. A little experimentation will usually reveal the best combination of circumstances. Generally, I like to bring horses in as soon as they seem restless, begin to walk the fence or hover near the gate.

A "babysitter horse" is often the best solution for the insecure horse that is not used to being alone. I have been fortunate to have had a string of wonderful ones that have come in all sizes and shapes.

In my experience, the horse that cannot be convinced of the joys of turn-out exercise is rare. More often, I think it is we humans who are not creative enough to devise the method that returns these horses to their natural state.

Midge Leitch, VMD, is a board member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has traveled within the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) to the 1988, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games and the 1998 and 2002 World Equestrian Games. At Londonderry Equine Clinic in Kennett Square, Penn., she specializes in the care of performance horses of all disciplines.

Ask the Experts is a monthly department in Dressage Today magazine.