It is widely accepted that horses evolved to live their entire lives in family groups of around 6 individuals. Feral horses will travel many miles a day to satisfy the need for scattered resources. Stressful events are fleeting. If this is the equine ‘gold-standard’ of a natural lifestyle, even pasture-kept, group-housed, domestic horses are somewhat compromised. And it can be no surprise that the demands of stabling and training practices can put equine mental and physical health and performance at risk. For example, many stereotypies (vices) start because of early weaning and isolating the foal .
Management practices are second only to pain/discomfort as the largest cause of behaviour and performance issues. Yet, good management is also preventative for health, and many improvements can be implemented with very little cost and disruption. Even in stables, aim to satisfy what behaviourists call the ‘3Fs’: Friends, Forage and Freedom.
- Friends: the social needs of a herd animal cannot be underestimated. ‘Individual turnout’ for resting and retired horses is perhaps more of a welfare issue than stabling. Pasture-kept horses adapt more easily to training than stabled horses , and individual stabling results in more chronic illnesses. Yet, stables need not mean isolation:
- Forage: Horses are designed to eat whole plants, but preserving and feeding hay can result in dust . We need to ensure the stabled horse can trickle-feed in a head-lowered position and do what we can for respiratory health:
So while physical pain and discomfort is the primary reason for misbehaviour or poor performance, management can result in slow-burning health problems. There’s no substitute for group turnout with the right horses. But where needs-must, we should use the 3F’s: Friends; Forage and Freedom, to reap the rewards of high welfare.
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