What does a domesticated horse need?
If you consider only the five freedoms, horses need remarkably little: feed, water, a pain- and disease-free life, the ability to express normal behavior, and an environment free of fear and distress. Is providing only the basics enough, or do we owe our equine companions more?
Considering the lifestyle of a “free and feral” horse, equine behaviorists suggest that many domesticated horses do not receive the care they require.
According to a recent study*, “Free-roaming horses graze from a diverse range of vegetation and travel considerable distances daily to obtain food and water. Their movement and opportunity to graze are largely unrestricted, and they have considerable decisional latitude. In contrast, domesticated horses are commonly managed in stables or other forms of confinement…and/or on pasture that varies in area, forage length and quality.”
In the study, data were analyzed from 505 Australian horse owners who responded to an online survey regarding horse-keeping practices. Some of the key findings of the study included:
- Most horses (83 percent) were managed on pasture;
- One-quarter of horses were housed individually and an additional one-quarter were housed with only one other horse; and
- Most owners provided water and hay on a daily basis, even to horses maintained on pasture.
The most concerning data, according to the researchers, were:
- 25 percent of stabled horses had no social interaction with peers;
- Stabled horses had small stall sizes; and
- 20 percent of stabled horses were exercised less than daily.
“Considering horses are herd animals, minimal social contact and exercise were specifically identified as welfare issues,” relayed Dr. Kathleen Crandell, a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).
She added, “Lack of exercise and other facets of domestication leave horses reliant on humans to provide the bulk of their nutritional needs. Some owners may not have the know-how or experience to properly care for horses, especially from a diet perspective. Owners with questions regarding forage quality and dietary requirements should reach out to a KER nutrition advisor.”
This study also noted that a substantial number of horses had access to only natural sources of water. Horse owners relying on natural water sources were encouraged to monitor water carefully for drought, disease (e.g., giardia, leptospirosis), and toxins such as blue-green algae.
Article reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit equinews.com for the latest in equine nutrition and management, and subscribe to The Weekly Feed to receive these articles directly (equinews.com/newsletters).
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