Traditional stables are a popular form of equine housing. Yet, many equine behaviourists think that stabling is not all it's cut out to be.
Traditional stabling and management systems, which segregate horses into individual pens, can lead to stress causing physical and psychological health problems. Studies of short and long term confinement and isolation have reported increased stress symptoms like raised heart rate, vocalisations, defecation and disturbances in feeding, as well as the development of abnormal behaviour. Stable management practices are often based around the human, structured by convenience and organisation, rather than being orientated around the behavioural needs of the horse. For horses, stabling can mean reduced stimulation and behavioural choices, as well as confinement and social isolation.
Dr Carol Hall, from Nottingham Trent University says:
"Many horses and ponies are kept for long periods on their own in stables where their movement is restricted and they generally eat while standing still. The health and behavioural problems that can occur as a result of this are clear indicators of less than optimum housing and management."
Traditional yard exercise and feeding regimes mean that restrictions are placed upon the horse, often dictating what it can do and when. Although many owners are increasing the amount of forage they feed their horses and introducing stable toys to help counter boredom, management routines intrinsically place limitations on horse behaviour. Researchers are concerned by the absence of behavioural choice in the stabled environment, because this in itself is a psychological challenge. Whilst any style of management largely dictates how a horse might choose to behave, a field or group-kept horse typically has a larger range of behaviours available to it at any one time and so can often find this environment less frustrating.
The wider concern is that the restriction of behaviour can negatively impact equine welfare.
"We need to consider the social needs of the horse throughout its entire life to ensure that we are not compromising their well-being" says Dr Hall. " The legislation that aims to protect the welfare of animals (the Animal Welfare Act 2006) clearly states that the person responsible for an animal has the duty to meet the needs of that animal...The extent to which traditional stabling and management complies with this legislation is debatable."
To explore alternatives to traditional stabling, Nottingham Trent University PhD student Kelly Yarnell investigated the effects of different housing designs. Supervised by Dr Carol Hall, she documented the stress levels, ease of handling and appearance of abnormal behaviour in horses under different housing conditions. During the study, horses were split into four different housing types: single housing with no physical contact; single housing with semi-contact; paired housing with full contact; and group housing with full contact. To evaluate the effects, the team observed the horses' behaviour via video footage and analysed dung samples for stress hormone, corticosterone. The researchers also used a five-point scale to assess how easy they horses were to handle.
Results from the study showed that levels of corticosterone were higher in the horses housed in the 'single housing no contact' treatment. Additionally, the occurrence of abnormal behaviour, notably crib-biting, box-walking, weaving and head nodding, was also higher in these horses. Equines in group housing with full contact were not seen to display any of these abnormal repetitive behaviours and horses housed in the social environments were also found to be easier to handle.
Housing type can also influence the horse's response to stressful events. In a study of housing behaviour, Visser and colleagues examined the effect of first-time stabling on the behaviour of young horses. Over the course of 12 weeks, the team surveyed the behaviour of thirty-six 2-year-olds, housed either individually in stables or in paired-housing. During the study, stress-related behaviours, like neighing and pawing, were seen more commonly in the individually housed horses and, by the end of the study, 67% of the lone horses were seen to display an abnormal repetitive behaviour, such as weaving.
Heleski and colleagues investigated the behavioural and physiological stress markers of foals weaned in stalls versus foals weaned in social paddock groups. Although both groups of horses underwent the stress of weaning, behavioural observations showed that the horses responded differently. The stall-kept weanlings spent more of their time engaging in behaviours such as kicking, pawing and chewing the stable walls, whilst the paddock kept youngsters spent their time in ways more similar to that of a feral horse. Based on their behaviour, the researchers concluded that the welfare of the paddock-kept weanlings was higher than that of the stalled weanlings.
"Social interaction and group living have been shown to be very important to horses and ponies. If individual animals don’t appear to thrive in the company of others this may well be because they’ve never learned how to", - Carol Hall, PhD.
Overall, social interaction and movement are vital to good equine welfare. Choice of housing and management are highly influential in this. It is important to take into consideration the behavioural needs of the horse when making decisions relating to all aspects of housing and management.
Published: Everything Horse UK Magazine. Iss 5, Feb 2014
Louise Napthine is an Equine Behaviour Coach with a strong background in Science. She enjoys writing about current research in behaviour and welfare.