Welfare of stallions kept in tie-stalls could be improved, say researchers

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A 1773 illustration of tie stalls in a stable for horses. Image: Daniel Chodowiecki, public domain
A 1773 illustration of tie stalls in a stable for horses in Gdansk, Poland. Image: Daniel Chodowiecki, public domain

A Romanian study has highlighted shortcomings in the housing of breeding stallions, suggesting that improvements could be made for the welfare of the animals.

The researchers, writing in the journal Animals, found that broodmares generally had a better life.

Silvana Popescu and her colleagues from the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in Romania focused their research on 330 stallions and 365 broodmares across a total of four stud farms. The breeds were purebred Furioso North-Star, Lipizzan and Romanian Draft Horse.

The stallions were kept in tie-stall housing while the broodmares were kept in extensive, mostly free housing.

Tie-stalls are typically just large enough to accommodate one animal, with enough room to lie down, perhaps half the size of a conventional box stall. Horses are usually tied up with a halter.

Stall-tying was historically used for stabling cavalry horses and in some parts of the world is still a common method.

In Eastern Europe, especially on large breeding farms, it is still used, mostly for breeding stallions.

Mares, fillies and colts are kept stall-tied during the night and during part of the cold season. In contrast, most of the horses in Western countries are individually housed in boxes that can allow a range of types of social contact.

Each animal was assessed and categorized in one of four welfare categories, based on a scoring system that looked at 30 management and animal-related health and behavior indicators.

The study team found that the stallions were much more likely to be affected by shortness of breath, tendon and joint swellings, abnormal gait and abnormal hoof horn quality than the broodmares.

The broodmares scored significantly higher in the welfare scores, typically classed as “enhanced” or “excellent”, where the stallions tended to fall into the categories of “acceptable” or “enhanced” welfare.

The authors found no significant difference in the way human caregivers related to the horses, a finding which points to shortcomings in the housing method for the stallions being behind the issues identified.

Improvements in accommodation, such as the use of free housing in boxes, could improve the welfare quality of breeding stallions, they concluded.

The study team said the stallions were housed tethered throughout the year.

Being individually stall-tied, they could not have physical contact with each other, but all could see, hear and smell the other horses.

They received hay and two concentrate meals each day. Watering was done through automatic waterers for most horses and manually, four times a day, for the others.

“The entire daily human handling of the adult stallions, except necessary contact with humans during feeding, watering and bed cleaning, consisted of grooming and inconsistent hoof cleaning,” they said.

None of the stallions were regularly ridden or used to drive carts.

Even if each farm had outside paddocks for individual turnout, none of the studied farms had a regular schedule for providing access to free exercise for the animals.

In contrast, the mares were generally free on pastures, but tethered when fed and during the night in winter.

These housing and horse management conditions were permanent, and had not changed significantly in the past 50 years, the authors said.

They noted that, in some parts of the world, stallions were housed in single stalls that were usually more restrictive than those housing mares, geldings or foals.

Box housing provided better comfort for resting and addressed the fear of owners that the stallions would fight and injure each other. However, it limited to a great extent their opportunities for social interaction and movement.

“Free exercise is important for the horses’ overall health and fitness. In addition to the physical benefits, exercise, and especially free exercise around other horses, is very important for the development and welfare of the animals’ mental status.”

The authors said the higher frequency of health problems among the stallions compared to the mares was probably because of their different housing conditions.

“As for the freedom to express normal behaviors, the stallions were disadvantaged because of how they were managed. With the stallions, tactile contact was limited by tethering to avoid fighting,” they wrote.

“The major welfare problems identified in the stallions (i.e., respiratory and locomotive disorders) seem to be related to tie-stall housing and especially management that allows very little access to free movement,” they said.

The results for the stallions, they said, could have been better, even when kept in tie-stalls, had they been given better access to free exercise.

The full study team comprised Popescu, Eva Lazar, Cristin Borda, Mihaela Niculae, Carmen Sandru and Marina Spinu.

Welfare Quality of Breeding Horses Under Different Housing Conditions
Silvana Popescu, Eva A. Lazar, Cristin Borda, Mihaela Niculae, Carmen D. Sandru and Marina Spinu.
Animals 2019, 9(3), 81; doi:10.3390/ani9030081 

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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