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Why Movement is So Important for Horses

by Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.


October 2014
Photo courtesy Aaron Lemperes

Driving through Kentucky recently, I passed breathtaking farms: acres and acres of meticulously manicured pastures, lined with white four-board fences that seemed to travel for miles. What struck me, however, was the barrenness of the fields. Where were all the horses?

Placed high on mounds in the distance were spectacular barns – horse “hotels.” Some horses lived inside just during the day; others were in for the majority of the time. While this may be convenient for the horse owner, standing in a small area for hours on end (even if part of it is outdoors) takes a dramatic toll on your horse’s mental and physical health. It diminishes not only his quality of life, but its length, too.

Horses need to move

Ever tried staying in a small room for most of the day? It’s not fun and we like cozy places!  Horses do not. Their very survival depends on an ability to flee at a moment’s notice from dangers, real or perceived. Trapped, they eventually succumb to their fate, appearing as though they are accepting, even appreciating, their solitude. But the stress takes its toll on their immune system and hormonal responses, leading to a vast variety of health issues. All body systems, including cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, neuromuscular and skeletal systems depend on exercise to remain sound. If the horse cannot be ridden every day many will benefit from simply being lunged or worked in a round pen.  And all horses benefit from free exercise by walking around in a large pasture (or dry lot with hay available).

Dangers of Inactivity

Obesity. The reason is obvious — too little activity, combined with too many calories. Reducing calories can be accomplished by minimizing or even removing concentrates from the diet, but forage must never be restricted. Doing so starts a hormonal cascade that actually keeps the horse overweight (for more go to gettyequinenutrition.com).

Porous bones. Skeletal bones are made of living, dynamic tissue that is constantly being subjected to changes in mineral and protein content. The horse’s large size helps him build bone mass simply by moving. Inactivity can make horses’ bones porous, potentially leading to fractures when only a slight demand is placed on them.

Poor feet and hair coat. Inadequate blood circulation reduces the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the extremities and hair follicles. Don’t be fooled by the shiny coat that results from added dietary fat. Truly healthy hair and hooves require exercise to delivery necessary nutrients.

Digestive disorders. Horses allowed to graze on pasture 24/7 rarely develop ulcers. Stall confinement is a significant cause of this painful condition, especially when forage is not made constantly available. In addition, digestive tract muscles suffer from lack of activity. A steady, consistent supply of forage will help exercise these muscles.

Physical activity increases blood circulation and stimulates gastrointestinal motility, keeping the entire digestive tract in good shape, lessening the chance of torsions and impactions that lead to colic. Fiber digestion is also improved. Within two weeks of changes to stall confinement (such as experienced by horses transported to training facilities), the vast majority of horses will develop ulcers and more than half of them will develop colon/cecal impactions.

Mental well-being. The stress of stall confinement and isolation often leads to unattractive behaviors consistent with trapping any animal: weaving, stall walking and circling, pawing, wall-kicking, chewing, head-bobbing, self-biting and even cribbing (which is more than just a bad habit – it is generally done to alleviate the pain of an ulcer). Horses are social animals, requiring time with each other in a herd environment to provide protection, comfort and mutual grooming.

Metabolic impacts. Sedentary horses lose muscle mass and can become insulin resistant. Muscle uses a large amount of glucose for energy; the more muscle mass your horse has, the more glucose transporters are produced, leading to increased insulin sensitivity. Therefore, exercise not only burns calories, but reduces insulin resistance. Exercise also helps reduce leptin resistance.

Fitness decline. Reduced exercise results in loss of muscle and bone mass which significantly impacts the horse’s fitness level and performance ability. Researchers at Virginia Intermont College found that horses on stall rest for 14 weeks lost fitness and, even more interestingly, pastured horses were able to maintain the same fitness level as horses who were stalled and exercised five days per week.

October 2014
Photo courtesy Aaron Lemperes

Growth retardation. A growing horse requires exercise for cartilage and overall bone and joint development. Restricting exercise can result in injury, under-conditioned joints, contracted tendons, deformed legs and osteopathic disorders.

Accelerated aging. When the immune system is suppressed, the horse becomes more susceptible to catching infections from other horses, developing insect-borne diseases, and exhibiting allergic responses to the environment. Weariness from confinement increases oxidative stress, resulting in free radicals that damage healthy tissues, inhibit repair and alter DNA. What we once thought as age-related conditions such as degenerative arthritis, and equine Cushing’s disease, now appear in much younger horses.

Possible solutions

For the well-being of horses we need to think “outside the box” (pun intended) and find ways to offer a safe environment that encourages movement and grazing time, as well as respects their innate physiological need for constant forage. One innovative approach is to transform an area into a “paddock paradise” where horses seek out new batches of hay while walking from place to place. This concept is quite versatile, allowing for even small sizes of land.

A relaxing of standards is also necessary, those that require keeping a horse stalled so he will stay clean and well-groomed. A more naturally kept horse will not only be happier, it will cut back on maintenance requirements and allow more time for enjoying your horse.  Think of creative ways to let your horse outside to be with other horses, too.

If some stall time is unavoidable, be sure to provide at least two places where hay is always provided. If your horse tends to eat very quickly, start by providing hay free-choice. Once he gets the message that he will not run out of hay, he will start to slow down his eating and be more relaxed. Commercially available “slow feeders” are a good option for many horses, as long as they are introduced gradually, to avoid frustration (more on this in the Getty Nutrition Library online).

Shelter from harsh weather remains a must for keeping horses, but this can best be accomplished by offering your horse the option to make choices. Barn stalls with open gates that can be entered at will, allow your horse to decide what is most comfortable.

The bottom line is that confining a horse to a stall or small outdoor area without the ability to exercise leads to an animal that is mentally stressed and physically limited. Exercise, walking, grazing, socializing and freedom to flee from perceived dangers are essential parts of what makes your horse a horse.

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements. Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at her website: www.gettyequinenutrition.com, as well as from Amazon. Free, useful articles are also available and she offers a monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought. Reach her directly at [email protected].


Originally Published October 2014 Issue

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