Researchers Pinpoint Influential Factors for Horse Welfare - Equine Health and Welfare

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Researchers Pinpoint Influential Factors for Horse Welfare

HCBC Staff
Created: November 12, 2015

Even if 24-hour turnout isn't an option, there are steps owners can take to help improve stalled horses' welfare.

Studies have shown that horses are better off living outdoors than in stalls. But 24-hour turnout isn’t an option for all owners and farms. If that’s your case, don’t worry: There are still many things you can do to improve horse welfare at your facility. French behavior researchers recently carried out an unprecedented investigation into the factors having the strongest effects on equine welfare in individual housing and how owners can make stalled horses’ environments better.

Frequent forage feeding, regular free time in the paddock with other horses, straw bedding, and good riding techniques are critical elements for promoting equine welfare in riding facilities, said Clémence Lesimple, PhD, researcher at the University of Rennes, in France. And so is, ironically enough, limiting the horse’s access and visibility to the great outdoors when he’s in his stall.

“Previous researchers have suggested that horses might be ‘frustrated’ to see outside, and our research confirms that access to wide outdoor viewing is related to signs of poor welfare,” said Lesimple. She presented her study at the 41st French Equine Research Day, held March 12 in Paris.

Better then—if the horse has to be stalled—to keep him in an indoor stall opening up to a hallway “with grids instead of walls between the stalls, to allow close physical, visual, and olfactory contacts,” she said, and give him regular free time outdoors with other horses.

Choosing the right horse for the job is also a key component of good equine welfare, Lesimple said. Generally speaking, in riding schools with many riders of varying levels and individual housing, ponies fare better than horses.

“We often hear that ponies are more robust than horses, and our study shows for the first time that they are less inclined to develop signs of poor welfare and that they are more resistant to deleterious equitation,” said Lesimple. “It’s therefore important to adapt the selection of the type of equid to the intended use and to the living and working conditions we can offer it.”

In their large-scale welfare study, Lesimple and colleagues observed 276 horses and ponies ages 3 to 30, representing 22 different breeds and 17 riding schools across France. They observed, hands-on, the animals’ behavior for 10 hours a day over a period of three days in each school. The researchers noted the telltale signs of compromised welfare, as determined in previous research, including injuries, fixed (depressed) posture, reversed ear position, and stereotypies (cribbing, weaving, obsessive licking and lip movements, etc.). They also recorded details on 18 specific parameters about each horse’s work and environment, including the feeding program, size and kind of stall, bedding, paddock time, time with other horses, workload, and how the horse was ridden.

They found that 10 of their 18 parameters had a strong impact on equine welfare, and two had a moderate impact. Most notably they discovered the following associations:

Good social contact is directly related to good ear position, and lack of social contact is “critically” related to the presence of injuries and stereotypies.
Poor riding technique has the greatest impact on the presence of injuries, and it also has an effect on stereotypy development.
A diet composed primarily of hay is the most important factor in limiting stereotypies. A diet rich in concentrated feeds is associated with increased injury risk (possibly because the horses are more energetic during riding lessons and so the riders react with stronger aids, especially more rein tension).
Box stalls allowing horses to put their heads out to face outdoor areas were associated with more stereotypies, injuries, and reverse ear position.
Ponies appeared more resistant to poor riding techniques, as they had a lower association of stereotypies and injuries to the poor-quality riding.
“Our results have shown, for the first time, a classification by order of importance of the influence of individual management factors on specific signs and expressions of poor welfare,” Lesimple said. “Our findings have a capital importance for industry professionals and horse owners, permitting them to identify sources of poor welfare and how to go about combating them.”

In the past, researchers have studied the effects of specific factors, such as feeding, housing, and social life, on welfare, Lesimple added. But they have never put all the factors together into one study to compare each one’s weight on welfare. Some researchers have tried to do this with questionnaires given to the stable managers and owners, but studies have shown that the use of questionnaires isn’t actually very reliable, since they are completed subjectively by nonscientists.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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