Thursday, July 23, 2009

Study Shows Pastured Horses Are More Fit

An article in the HealthWatch section of the Blood-Horse magazine recently caught my attention. A Virginia Intermont College study conducted by Dr. Patty Graham-Thiers showed that horses let out to pasture were more fit than horses that were kept in stalls. (HealthWatch is a compilation of articles from

The study worked with three groups of horses. Group one was turned out full-time on a hilly 100-acre pasture. Group two was stalled during the day and was lightly exercised five times a week. The horses spent the night in half-acre paddocks. Group three was stalled during the day but the horses were not exercised. Those horses also spent the night in half-acre paddocks.

After 14 weeks the study showed that group one and two horses were more fit than the horses in group three. The pastured and exercised group of horses had faster recovery times, lower rectal temperatures, lower heart rates and blood lactate levels, and lower peak carbon dioxide blood concentrations after being exercised. Perhaps, most important of all, the study showed that the pastured horses had an increase in bone density which is vitally important for the health of the horse.

After reading the article, I could not help but think of Kerry Thomas who is the founder of the Thomas Herding Technique. Thomas is an expert in understanding the fundamentals of a horse’s well-being and he works with horse owners to provide better care for their horses.

I recently interviewed Thomas about his work with horses and horse owners and the interview is soon to be published in The Arabian Magazine. The interview can also be viewed at Thomas’ website:

In the interview Thomas said: the environment is the foundation from which all else stems and it is very often the keeper of unseen stress and behavior issues we only observe much later. Their movement, where they feed and how they get water, is vitally important.

He added: the responsible caregiver has the burden to fully understand the environment the animal was taken from and re-create it. A better fit into the domesticated artificial environment makes a healthier, happier horse, and an understanding of the true herding dynamics helps the horseman, or horsewomen, become better hosts of an animal that was not born to know fences or stalls.

Burchard Von Oettingen and the great breeder and trainer Federico Tesio also knew about the importance of pasturing horses.

Oettingen was the Director of the Royal Stud of Trakehnen Germany and a world renowned expert on horses. In his book, Horse Breeding in Theory And Practice, published in 1909 by Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Oettingen outlined the benefits of pasturing horses:

Even the best soil requires, in order to derive any benefit from its advantages for breeding good, capable and sound horses, two very important factors, i.e., paddocks and permanent pastures. …But the method of rearing in the stable without paddocks and permanent pastures, which is still so widespread in Germany for all kinds of breeds, threatens to ruin many breedings. … Paddocks and permanent pastures serve, therefore, as a contrast to the method of rearing in the stable, to keep the breeding material as long as possible outside the stable and in conformity with nature, to nourish same. The following advantages thus arise: -

1. The influence of Light. The recently well recognized beneficial influences of light consist principally in destroying many very dangerous microbes, especially tuberculosis bacilli, and in increasing the energy of life by multiplying the red corpusculli and the haemoglobis. …

2. The influence of good air. The air rich in oxygen in the open is a primary condition of every healthy development. The continuous remaining out in the open increases the need of oxygen, and in order to satisfy their needs, horses must, by deep breathing, make a greater use of the lungs. Accordingly, the lungs will be extended and strengthened, and also the energy of life increased.

3. The influence of wind and weather. The constant skin massage by wind and weather strengthens the whole nervous system. As a matter of fact, wind and weather preserves the whole animal organism in a continuous and beneficial training through frequent and sudden changes, and forces it to get accustomed to outside circumstances for the sake of self-preservation. In conjunction with the beneficial influence of light and air, wind and weather, owing to a normal and strengthening development of the nervous system, favour the health in such a good and energetic way altogether impossible in the horses are brought up in the stable.

4. The influence of exercise. A voluntary, continuous and mostly slow excerise on the meadows is necessary when seeking their food. By this means the sinews, muscles and bones are under the influence of a favourable slow, continuous and effective training quite impossible outside of the meadows. The longer grazing is possible. …and especially night grazing, the more distinctly is to be observed a favourable development of the formation of the body, especially of the shape of the limbs, as well as that so important to correct walk. …

5. Food grazing. The advantages of grazing on the meadow, as against green food in the stable, lie, firstly, in the fact that the horses never get as much in their mouth in the meadow as in the stable, and that, therefore, sudden overloading of the stomach is avoided; secondly, many and just the best and youngest grasses lose their taste between the time of being mowed and eaten; thirdly, the useful combination of amids are, for the most part, in the younger plants, and these are the most difficult to mow, but the horses whilst on the meadow get them easily.

The great breeder and trainer Federico Tesio studied Oettingen and he relied on much of his writing when he established his Thoroughbred farm Dormello on the banks of Lake Miaggiore in Northern Italy.

Dormello had the appearance of an Italian Villa and it was actually divided into several mini farms complete with their own paddocks and pastures nestled among the hills overlooking the lake. Tesio knew the importance of making his farm as natural and nurturing as possible for his horses and he went to great lengths to make his Dormello the best place possible to breed and raise thoroughbreds.

It must have worked because from Dormello came 21 Derby Italiano winners and the great Donatello, Nearco and Ribot.


  1. I just wonder how much money was spent on this "duh" study. Stalled horses with no exercise was the lowest on the totem pole as far as fitness and bone, really? I just don't think you need a college degree to figure that one out! I can only imagine how much the money ear-marked for that little project could have been better spent....

  2. Anonymous,

    I don't know how much was spent for the study - the Blood-Horse did not mention that. You can read the article in the June 27 edition of the Blood-Horse, page 2289.

  3. Much like postmenopausal women and walking. Once past menopause, a woman needs to walk to build strength and bone density.
    /s/ an "old" lady

  4. You may say duh about the study but many so called horseman and women in show barns subject there horses to little or no turnout with only 1 hour a day exercise and wonder why they have a barn full of lame sick horses. You would think they would have some common sense! But they don't. I thought the study might knock some sense intothem.

  5. Anonymous,

    That's truly a shame that some horsemen and women do not provide the kind of quality care that their horses need to be healthy - physically and emotionally.