Horses are social animals that do best in environments that offer them opportunities to interact with other horses. However, it's important that the group of horses that are turned out together have minimal aggression to allow them to bond with one another.
University of Iceland researchers Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir and Hans Haraldsson studied 426 Icelandic horses in 20 groups, with a minimum of eight horses in each group. The duo then looked at herd size, the number of horses on the pasture, sex ratio, number of adults and foals, number of friends, presence of stallions and group stability to learn what factors affected the horses in specific ways. The season and if hay was provided was also noted.
The researchers found that aggression was lower when groups were most similar to those found in the wild: a stallion, mares and young foals. Low levels of aggression were found, meaning the groups were stable, and the horses seemed to be better behaved.
The highest levels of aggression were found in groups of unfamiliar yearlings. Young horses displayed more social grooming, which typically indicates that they are bonding with one another. As the horses became more familiar with one another, they groomed each other less, but preferred the company of specific individuals.
Older horses were more aggressive and high social activity was displayed by a few individuals in each herd. Aggression levels varied by season, being highest in winter: Aggression was increased in the presence of hay and related to the number of foals present.
From this study, the scientists recommend that horse owners pay attention to not just the duration of turnout time, but the cohesiveness of the horses turned out together, keeping the groups as stable as possible to ensure good welfare.
Read more at HorseTalk.
Read the full study here.
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