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Stall, run, and exercise

From: Sallie

Dear Jessica, I am having a terrible problem keeping my horse fit. I have a very busy job and three kids, so I ride only on weekends. I know that it is not good for horses to stand around in stalls all week and just go out on the weekends, so I am paying extra for my horse to have a stall with a paddock. The stall is 12 x 12 and the paddock is 12 x 24. My horse spends all her time in the paddock except to come in to drink and eat. She has been in that arrangement for the last eight months. She is an older mare, seventeen years old. I have had the vet check her twice in the last year and he says she is very healthy and sound for her age. But he also says that she is not very fit. I can't understand this, because she is spending so much time outdoors now. Don't you always say that horses will keep themselves fit if they are kept outdoors instead of in a stall? Do you think there could be something wrong with my mare that the vet hasn't noticed? I've thought about having someone else ride her during the week, but I'm afraid that will make her too tired for our weekend rides.

Thanks, Sallie

Hi Sallie! What I usually say is that most horses will keep themselves REASONABLY fit if they are turned out 24/7 in a field, preferably with other horses. They won't necessarily be fit enough to take on a long ride if they are only ridden at the weekend, but they will be much fitter than horses in stalls.

And that brings me to your mare, and to your question. I changed the title, because "horse in paddock" didn't describe this situation. It's great that you've managed to get a stall with a run attached - I'm sure that your mare is healthier overall because of her access to sunshine and cleaner air. But this isn't really a paddock. She can't exercise freely in such a small space, and since she is alone, she's less likely to move around. Horses keep each other exercised - that's one of the benefits of turnout in a field.

Although a run is a wonderful add-on to a stall, and much nicer and more healthy for the horse than being confined to the stall only, it really won't contribute much, if anything, to a horse's fitness. There have been some interesting experiments involving very long narrow runs, possibly no more than 24 feet wide but a quarter-mile long (or longer). Horses turned out next to one another in these long narrow runs WILL run - and keep themselves (and each other) exercised. A run the size of your mare's, though, isn't an exercise area. If you add the stall and run together, you'll see that although your mare's space has tripled, it's still not much room, just because it was so small to begin with. For a horse, a stall provides about as much space as a crate (or transport box) does for a dog or cat. Making it larger doesn't give the horse a reason to run around in it. Imagine a dog in a crate that gives it just enough room to lie down without touching the walls. That's the equivalent of a horse's stall. Now imagine that you stretch the crate to three times its length, so that the dog has three times the space. It's still not a very large area, is it - you couldn't toss a frisbee in there, and the dog couldn't run after it if you did.

A stall with a run is better for a horse than a stall without a run, just as a large crate is better for a dog than a small crate. A pasture is better than an exercise paddock, and an exercise paddock (even if it's just an acre or so) is better than a stall with a run. Stalls with runs let horses get fresh air and sunlight, lie down comfortably, and possibly socialize a little with horses in adjoining stalls. A very young horse might try to run around even such a small area; an older horse is unlikely to bother. That's actually good, though - you wouldn't want your mare trying to run around and make tight turns at speed in such a small space! It still wouldn't let her get enough exercise, and it would be a fast way to damage her legs.

If there are actual pastures or even paddocks or large drylots on the property, try to get some turnout time for your mare, preferably with a companion. Otherwise, you may need to make arrangements with another person so that your mare can be exercised at least a few times during the week. Someone in your situation, with a lot of job and family committments, might find it very useful to have someone you can trust to ride your mare on weekdays. If the other person is a reasonably good rider and a responsible individual, and is willing to take your mare out several times a week for a long walk or a long walk with some trotting, you should see a clear increase in your mare's fitness after a month or so - and she'll be more energetic, not less, during your own weekend rides.

Talk to the barn owner about your plans. If the other rider isn't associated with the barn, the owner will probably want to talk to her, give her a copy of any barn rules, and get a release form and her medical information. You may have to arrange for the other rider to have a part-lease of your mare to get riding privileges at the barn. Even if the other rider is already at the barn, the owner will need to know what is going on.

You've done well to get your mare a run where she can have air and sunlight. Now, if you want her to be fit, you'll also have to find a way to meet her need for exercise.


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