Question: I keep reading everywhere that you should exercise your horse outdoors, but none of these sites tells me why this is better for it. May you please tell me why it is better for me to exercise a horse outdoors rather than indoors?
Answer from April Reeves: Thank you for this question; it is one of the best yet, and one that’s highly controversial.
Each breed and discipline has a different response to this question, but you need a variety of experience and length of experience with all breeds and disciplines to know how to answer it well.
I’m going to give you specific interpretations and let you decide the answers.
The Horse’s Physical Well-Being and His Environment
While we all know that exercise is good for the horse, we often don’t realize the consequences of the environment we are riding in. Indoor arenas are a gift as they provide a dry place and shelter. However, they also trap and contain micro particles of dust, spores and mold that enter the horse’s lungs and slowly over time develop into lung problems such as heaves and other recurrent airway obstruction (RAO).
If your hair and clothing feels dusty after riding in an indoor arena, that same level of dust is likely getting trapped in your horse’s lung tissue. It takes a great deal of particulate over the course of time to show the effects, but when your horse begins to show symptoms of labored breathing, it’s often too late.
While it is not always suitable to ride outside, choosing to ride outdoors when possible gives your horse a break from the air he takes in on a continual basis.
The Horse’s Mental Well-being
This is an area of controversy, as many trainers have used indoor arenas most of their lives and never gave it a thought to do something else with their horses.
Many horses can do the same thing day after day in the same place and never give their rider any indication that they are tired, bored and feeling enslaved. It’s not until you begin to mix up the horses schedule and work both indoors, outdoors and occasionally on the trail that you begin to realize the horse not only brightens up but also begins to learn his daily lessons with greater ease and speed.
Horses that are never exposed to outside stimulus often tend to be edgy and difficult to handle on the ground. Exposing your horse to the great outdoors will give him a boost of self confidence that carries over into the other things he does. You cannot get the spook out of a horse by keeping him away from spooky environments.
We, as humans, are often too busy training our horses for the future that we miss the here and now. Being consumed with getting a job done on time for shows and deadlines, we put our horses into scenarios and situations that accommodate our needs first.
If you have ever taken a break and walked along a riverbank or sweet pasture you will know the feeling of getting back to where all living creatures began, and where we belong. Perhaps the horse is in tune with this at a closer level than we give him credit for.
A New Way To Train or an Old Standby?
I take all my horses into pastures and areas with trees and bushes, and use them to do my circles and flexion work. It gives the horse a reason to move in the ways you ask him, and they learn quicker when there is a purpose to the lesson. I find they learn how to guide better (especially if you are training for western disciplines) and tend to have increased obedience as they are alone and away from their familiar world and have to rely on the herd of 2 (you and the horse).
Moving up hills helps to create straightness in your horse. I take horses with poor training up and down hills, asking the horse to push as opposed to pull. I look for soft uphill grades and trot at a comfortable pace for interval training.
By getting out of the ring environment, you can use hills and obstacles like water, logs and bridges to get the horse use to new experiences, smells and sights.
Extreme Mental Stress
I have spent years in big show barns with many different breeds. We trained motion horses for some time (Morgans, Saddlebreds, Hackneys) and all these horses were considered ‘too valuable’ to go outside. Often these horses would ‘crawl the wall’ where they get so strung out just moving around the arena continuously that they began to bring their outside front legs up into the wall of the arena. I have witnessed a horse have a nervous breakdown from the stress of monotony and ‘soft abuse’ and it was not a pretty sight. The horse was off for 2 years and never made it back to the show ring the same way. This horse had never seen the outdoors for almost 7 years prior to the breakdown and spent the 2 years of recovery in his stall. This deeply affected me and I began to expand what I thought I knew so well.
Step Outside of The Box
I too spent many years training indoors, partly due to a wet climate and no where to ride outside. I began to question the validity of it all, and health of the horse.
Something never quite felt right to me, so I began to stretch the boundaries, often taking valuable show stock in the trailer to the beaches and parks for an outing. I noticed a huge difference in all the horses’ attitudes. They became more interested in their day jobs, and I was able to speed through their training much faster with less hassles.
It has taken me many years to be able to examine both means of riding techniques, and have found a new way of training that has been paying big dividends for my clients.
While I do agree that it takes more work to get some horses use to outside noises and ‘spooks’, I have grown as a rider and trainer, and have no desire to lock any horse into a tight schedule of routine indoors again. All my horses are accepting of everything that happens around them, and at shows they are well behaved and obedient. They are use to the sights and sounds not offered to them in an exclusively indoor world.
I have had the argument my whole 48 years of riding that some horses are just too valuable to put outside or ride outside. In my years I have witnessed more injuries from confinement and riding indoors only, that I cannot validate the argument of confinement.
I have also seen health problems from the great indoors you will never see in an outside horse.
Outdoor arenas are so much better than they were in the past. We have footing materials that allow good grip even in the wet.
Horses tend to be a bit spookier outside than inside. While this is true, it is more of a testament of the rider’s inability to address and move past the problems. There is so much great knowledge available now days that help indoor riders with these issues that you don’t need to lock you and your horse inside.
The outdoors is a horse’s natural habitat.
We as horsemen need to expand our knowledge and take risks that could open us up to new experiences. We push our limitations onto our steeds and expect them to accept and tolerate our idiosyncrasies and fears. Riding outside expands our world as humans, and allows us to grow along with our horses, both physically and mentally.