Horses require lots of daily exercise because they are essentially grazing athletes. When you own a horse you need to know that exercise is a very important part of caring for a horse. It is not acceptable to keep horses confined in yards or stables without providing lots of opportunities for movement.
Horses that live at pasture with other horses in a herd will exercise themselves if the paddock has good pasture. This is because pasture makes horses move. Horses have to keep walking in order to continuously find new plants. Horses that are kept in yards or stables must either be turned out daily onto pasture (preferably with other horses) or a large area (again preferably with other horses) so that they are able to not only move, but interact socially with other horses. Horses that are turned out alone – even if it is in a pasture with good pasture – tend to stand around (usually where they can see other horses) rather than graze (and therefore walk).
How much do horses move naturally?
A horse is naturally a very active animal. In the feral/wild situation horses cover many kilometres a day (on average between 30km and 80km). They travel between where the water is and where feed is (grassland pasture). The feed near to the water hole is eaten out first so for much of the year horses have to travel quite a distance to obtain the variety of plants that they need to keep them healthy. This keeps them moving on an almost constant basis.
When we keep horses in captivity they usually do not get enough exercise because it is difficult to provide the space required by a horse. But it is important that we keep in mind how much a horse needs to move and attempt to provide the right conditions so that the horse can move as much as possible.
What is the best sort of movement for horses?
The best form of exercise is lots of slow steady movement which is what horses do when grazing. Occasional bursts of speed are also good for horses. Healthy horses will do this voluntarily on a regular basis when turned out together in a paddock. Paddocks need to be safe enough so that horses do not injure themselves.
Why do they need to move so much?
Horses rely on movement to keep their circulation working properly (both blood circulation and lymphatic fluid circulation). Every step a horse takes helps to keep their circulation working by ‘pumping’ fluid back up the legs. The hoof of the horse has evolved to expand to absorb the downward pressure of the horse (as the hoof touches the ground) and contract to help push fluid upwards again as the hoof leaves the ground. Horses that do not move enough tend to develop ‘filled legs’ which is where the lower legs fill with fluid due to the horse standing still for too long. This usually disappears once the horse is exercised.
How can I make sure my horse is moving enough?
Horses will not move just for the sake of it (even though it is good for them) unless they are grazing or are being exercised. For example if you turn a horse out for the day into a bare paddock he or she may run around for a few minutes to get rid of the excess energy that has built up from standing in a yard or stable over night but then they will stand around waiting to be fed/let back in. As mentioned before they will also tend to stand around even if there is pasture to eat if they are turned out alone. The best way to get horses moving is to turn them out to graze with other horses. They will then walk steadily for several hours. This is the most ideal form of basic exercise for a horse.
If you need to restrict the horse’s access to pasture (i.e. the horse is overweight/laminitic etc.) or you do not have enough pasture you can still encourage the horse to move more by spreading out the hay in a yard. In the case of a laminitic horse you should not force movement until the horse is no longer in pain (your vet/farrier will tell you when). You may be able to utilise a laneway or driveway and put the hay at one end and the water at the other so that the horse has to move between the two. In the case of restricted pasture access (for whatever reason) you also need to create regular structured exercise for your horse which can be either lunging, riding, leading in hand, leading from another horse, driving (in harness) etc.
For more information please see the Equiculture Responsible Horse Care page.