It's almost 6 a.m. on a gorgeous Thursday morning, and I'm sitting here in my PJs with my morning orange juice, answering emails and looking at all the horses out in their fields. No, I don't make my girls get up at some ghastly hour to turn horses out. They've been out all night, each and every one, even Ella and Midge.
Many dressage folk cringe when I say that I turn my horses out for long chunks of time, even the important and fancy ones. "They could get hurt!" they tell me. "Don't you worry about that?" The list of things I worry about is extensive, and yes, my top horses getting hurt is definitely on that list. But the truth is that horses can get hurt anywhere, anytime, doing anything. Horses are livestock trying 24-7 to be deadstock. If they can find a way to injure themselves, and they want to be injured, they're going to be injured. Simple as that.
Now, I'm no idiot about it either. Each horse is an individual, and if I have a horse in my program—mine or someone else's—who is not a fan of turnout, then that's settled. But I love turnout, and I love night turnout here in Virginia in the summertime. It's SO hot here midday that leaving them out with no shelter is cruel, and I'd rather have them out all night than only out for the few early morning hours.
So I find ways to get horses acclimated. Midge was easy—he came to us understanding turnout and never stopped. Ella was another matter. She tolerated turnout for a little while when she first came over from Germany, but she stopped when I graduated from college and moved back to Illinois. I tried every now and then in our various travels—Florida, New Hampshire, and finally Virginia—but she never seemed to settle.
When we got walloped by snowstorms a few years back, I noticed that Ella really loved sticking her head in the snow and playing with it as we walked from barn to arena, and I had an idea. We have four little dirt paddocks that we use for inclement weather, for horses that can't handle the grass, or for horses that are injured. I popped her out in one of those in 3 feet of snow. She couldn't have run or paced if she tried. She had a ball, sniffing the snow, eating the snow, wandering around in the snow… but not running in panic in the snow. Over the next few weeks, the snow slowly melted, and Ella could walk about more freely, but by that point she'd settled in to the idea of turnout and has never looked back. In fact, she's one of my best eggs now. (Except when there's a fox in her paddock, but that's another matter.)
I like turnout for so many reasons. Movement is, of course, the best thing we can do for our horses. Motion is lotion, my chiropractor says, and it's true. We're blessed here with a couple of older professor-types, and keeping them moving keeps arthritis pain at bay. For those who can tolerate our wonderful, lush Virginia grass, it makes for happy tummies. It's less work for us cleaning stalls. (Wahoo!)
But mostly, we do so much to horses that isn't good for them. We feed them concentrated grains and make them work on average (or worse!) footing at horse shows. We put metal in their mouths and ship them in boxes attached to trucks. Anything I can do to help put them back as nature intended, in whatever small way, seems worthwhile. And when I see them snoozing in the sun, or playing halter tag over a fence, I always smile. This is truly what horses were meant to do.