Confining horses to individual stalls is a common form of equine management around the world, though this means of living is contrary to a horse's natural instincts to live in a herd, exercise and eat nearly constantly. Researchers from France investigated 12 housing and management factors to determine what effect, if any, they had on stabled horses. Most of the factors had no effect on the horses, but three did affect their welfare: a window to the external environment, straw bedding and a reduction in the quantity of concentrated feed.
Dr. Alice Ruet, Julie Lemarchand, Céline Parias, Núria Mach, Marie-Pierre Moisan, Aline Foury, Christine Briant and Léa Lansade, with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), noted that previous research had shown that horses kept in individual stalls could develop aggression, stereotypies and other stress-related behaviors, all of which are indicative of poor welfare. The team explored a set of factors to see if they could alleviate the negative effects of individual stabling.
The study took place over 9 months, using 187 Warmblood sport horses that were kept in stalls with no pasture access. The stalls varied: some had external windows and some had grills between the stalls so the horses could see one another. Some stalls were bedded in straw, and some were not; the amount of feed each horse got was also different depending on physical activity levels. The study investigated, age, bedding, gender, time in a stall with a window, time in a stall with grates between equines, discipline, performance level, amount of training time and use of concentrated feed.
Ruet then walked in front of each stall to see if a horse showed any indications of poor welfare, such as windsucking, head bobbing, weaving or cribbing, in a three-second window. The results showed that the majority of the factors investigated did not influence equine welfare, but the three that did (an external window, straw bedding, and the amounted of concentrated feed received), were difficult to alleviate at small facilities that could not adjust their equine management ways.
The team determined that free exercise, interaction with other horses and the ability to eat as often as possible are key to keeping horses happy and healthy. The team determined that drastic changes to the way horses are kept are needed to improve their welfare.
Read the full study here.
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