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A Danish researcher has cautioned against excessive stabling of horses, which he says fails to meet many of their physical and mental needs.
Professor Jan Ladewig of Copenhagen University says the quality of a horse’s day outside of their riding routine matters a great deal.
While great emphasis is put on training and riding, the quality of “the other 23 hours a day” is of equal importance, Ladewig suggests.
“If we expect horses to perform at a high level, either during competitions, or during general leisure riding … and if we expect them to be safe and easy going to handle and to ride, we must consider the quality of all those hours of the day and night when they are left by themselves, when we are not around.”
Ladewig, addressing delegates at the recent annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science in the United States, focused on current husbandry methods, the problems associated with them and suggested how changes could be made for the betterment of the horse’s welfare.
Current equine management practices may arise from incorrect information people have about horses, the equine social structure, and particularly the horse’s needs, he said.
Ladewig, citing a Swiss study that found 83.5 percent of horses from 12 different riding schools were housed individually, said some horse owners did not allow their horse to have group turnout, believing that injury was more likely in such a setting.
That belief went against the results of a study showing that horses in group turnout on pasture suffered no more injuries than horses housed individually in stalls.
Ladewig said domestication had not removed the basic social, physiological and psychological needs of the horse, and some management and living conditions failed to meet those needs.
“If we are really concerned about the welfare of riding horses we must get away from individual housing and change over to group housing.”
Some horse owners also thought that turnout was unnecessary, believing that horses got all the exercise they needed from being ridden.
A 30-year-old research paper found that the riding-school horses studied received on average 41 minutes of exercise, six days a week. This contrasted with the results of a 2010 study showing feral horses travelled an average of 17.9 kilometres a day.
Ladewig suggested that the difference in distances travelled by the horses in those two studies could explain why many modern horses suffered from health issues such as obesity.
Studies have shown that the domesticated horse did not differ substantially from the wild horse, such as Przewalski’s horse, either physically or psychologically.
“Horses need physical contact with other horses, and social isolation prohibits the horse from engaging in mutual grooming, play, and simply just being near other horses they are bonded with.
“Most domestic animals are social animals. That is almost a requirement for being domesticated.”
He discussed ways horse owners and managers could meet the species-specific needs of the horse in a modern world, including group housing alternatives, and pasture enrichments, such as dirt to roll in, trees and branches to forage on, and early socialization in mixed sex/age herds.
“I hope I’ve made it pretty clear that what we need is much more information on how horses are housed, how much they get out either alone, and with other horses, and how much they are ridden,” Ladewig said.
He implored those attending the conference to send research students out to acquire much-needed data in this area.