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Turnout Time vs. Exercise


My horse lives in a big pasture and runs around a lot with his friends in the winter. Does that mean he’s getting plenty of exercise, or should his spring conditioning routine still start as if he’s had no exercise at all? – from

Buy a lottery ticket, because this is your lucky day! I just happened to run across a study by Patricia M. Graham-Theirs and L. Kristen Bowen from the Equine Studies Department at Virginia Intermont College called “Improved Ability to Maintain Fitness in Horses During Large Pasture Turnout” published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science Volume 33, Issue 8, Pages 581-585, August 2013.

Their objective was to compare horses’ maintenance of fitness during extended periods of no forced exercise with that after stall confinement. To do this they divided horses into three groups:
1) pasture turnout or P, 2) stalled and exercised or E, and 3) stalled with no exercise or S. The researchers looked at quite a wide variety of things, including body fat, bone mineral content, bloodwork, temperature, weight, body condition score, and heart rate. They even attached GPS units to the horses’ halters to estimate distance traveled. Each horse also performed a standardized exercise test at the beginning and end of the 14-week study.

Interestingly, the P group traveled a greater distance daily compared with the E group, which were exercised for one to two hours per day, five days per week, at the walk, trot, and canter under saddle! Bone density was also greater for the P group, with heart rates and temperatures being comparable between the P and E groups. This data suggests that the stalled with no exercise group lost fitness, whereas the pasture group remained as fit as the stalled and exercised group. So access to pasture does appear to help maintain bone strength and exercise fitness ability!

That said, I still encourage you to put together a conditioning plan for your horse that addresses his cardiovascular system, provides strength training, and includes suppling exercises, gradually increasing the duration, intensity, and frequency of the physical fitness work to best prepare him for the season ahead.



Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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5 comments on “Turnout Time vs. Exercise
  1. Margo says:

    Very interesting! I would never have thought this was true. Guess my horse must be pretty fit since he is both pastured and exercised regularly!

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Kari says:

    How long were the study horses turned out each day – or was it 24/7? Curious what the turnout time threshold is. Mine are out about 8 hours a day every day.

  3. Sarah says:

    I truly believe in pasture or turn-out time for horses, especially with appropriate playmate(s). I trust the results from the research noted, but I hope people realize that pasture exercise is not the same as extended cardio/aerobic work. For instance, I once had to share trail time with an exhausted mule and horse on a limited distance endurance ride in coastal mountains of Northern CA: the equines tucked in behind my horse and tried to tell their humans they wanted to slow down (I was having my horse walk down a long hill to save his legs). The “mother” equestrian said that the two equines got plenty of exercise wandering around on their hilly pasture, so they didn’t bother to condition the animals for a 30-mile LD ride. These two equines were passed up for Top 10 because one was showing signs of lameness and the other the vet deemed as “exhausted.” Both equines were not in condition for the ride, said the head vet at the finish. The riders had been “over-and-under” encouraging the equines to try to get in ahead of me. The equines clearly were tired and done at about 10 miles of hills and trotting. This is an example of pasture exercise not relating to the activity that the human wanted to achieve. After all, if you have been power-walking and hour a day for several months, you are not prepared to run a marathon. Don’t expect your horse to be able to either.

  4. Rodney Morris says:

    What was the name of the book. That you were taking about it was building fitness in horses

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Rodney,

      The title of the book is Conditioning Sport Horses by Hilary Clayton, one of my all-time favorite books!

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

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