An estimated 40% of horses are injured each year, according to survey funded by The Horse Trust, with the majority of accidents occurring during turnout.
A research project funded by equine charity The Horse Trust has found that 40% of horses had suffered a traumatic injury within the past year. Only 13% of injuries occurred during ridden exercise, while 62% occurred while the horse was turned out in the field.
The research was carried out by Rosie Owen, who is currently working as The Horse Trust's Clinical Scholar in Equine Orthopaedics at the University of Liverpool.
"This Horse Trust-funded research shows that horses get injured relatively frequently - much more often than you would expect," said Rosie. "Interestingly, most of the injuries happen during turnout, rather than during ridden exercise."
The results were obtained through analysing the responses from 652 randomly selected horse owners from north-west England, Midlands and North Wales, all of whom had a horse aged 15 years or younger. Owners sought veterinary treatment for 47% of the injuries reported, while the remainder were treated by the owner or a friend, or required no treatment.
Owen identified a number of factors that were associated with an increased risk of injury. For example, horses that had been owned for a shorter period of time were found to be significantly more at risk of injury. This increased risk may be due to aggression from other horses when a new horse is introduced to a field, but owners can take various steps to reduce the likelihood of injury, according to Owen.
"It's worth trying to avoid regular changes in group composition," said Owen. "A new horse should be introduced to the group gradually, preferably by providing adjacent stabling initially. Protective boots may help as the lower limbs are most at risk of injury. Also, if possible, the other horses in the field should have their shoes taken off during the period of adjustment, so they are less able to injure the new horse."
Owen also found that horses turned out within larger groups were at an increased risk of injury. This is probably due to there being a larger hierarchy with multiple horses competing for dominance. However, she found that the risk of injury reduced when additional feeding areas were provided in the field.
"If you provide hay or haylage to horses in the field, it's worth including an additional feeding area to reduce competition for food," said Owen.
Other interesting findings included the lower incidence of injury in cob and pony breeds, compared to other breeds. Horses used competitively also had a higher risk of injury, which may be due to the additional athletic demands placed on these horses, or due to the way these horses are managed.
Although most of the injuries recorded in the survey occurred during turnout, 11% occurred in the stable, with most of the injuries affecting the head or eye. Owners can easily reduce the risk of stable injury, according to Owen.
"There are various simple steps that owners can take to reduce the risk of injury in the stable. Try to provide hay from the floor, instead of in a hay rack, and make sure there are no protruding nails, hooks or sharp edges in the stable," said Owen.
She added that it would be useful to conduct further research to understand how injuries occur during turnout.
"A lot of injuries are reported during turnout, but we're uncertain about what happened. It would be useful to observe the behaviour of horses in the field to see whether it's competition for food, or another factor, that is responsible for the high rate of injuries among horses."