Weather watch: Equines seek shelter and shade for different reasons

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Donkeys prefer the sun and are most at home on bright, warm days, which may have horses seeking shade, new research has found.
Donkeys prefer the sun and are most at home on bright, warm days, which may have horses seeking shade, new research has found.

Surprising differences between why and when horses and donkeys seek shelter have been revealed in a new study looking at semi-free ranging equines in Britain.

Led by University of Portsmouth equine behaviour expert Dr Leanne Proops, research collaborators included international animal welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, Canterbury Christ Church University, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust and Natural Horse Management expert Lucinda McAlpine.

In a nutshell, they found that donkeys prefer the sun, and are most at home on bright, warm days, tending to run for cover in Britain’s cold, wet weather.

Over a period of 16 months, the research team studied 208 healthy, semi-free ranging donkeys and horses in Devon and Somerset, and found that the two species choose to make use of shelter according to different environmental factors.

Funded by The Donkey Sanctuary, this is the first study to examine a donkey’s ability to endure cooler, wetter climates. The research showed that while horses can cope with cold, wet weather, most donkeys seek shelter when it starts to rain, and when temperatures drop below 14 degrees.

Donkeys used natural shelter relatively more often to shelter from rain and wind, with horses seeking natural shelter relatively more frequently when sunny.
Donkeys used natural shelter relatively more often to shelter from rain and wind, with horses seeking natural shelter relatively more frequently when sunny. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Overall, unless it was hot and dry, donkeys spent a great deal less time outdoors than horses, preferring the sanctuary of a shelter. When it rained, donkeys were three times more likely than horses to stay indoors, and across all weather conditions observed, most horses can be found outside.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s director of research and operational support Dr Faith Burden said the study validated the charity’s long-held belief that donkeys need shelter from inclement weather.

“It is interesting to see such a disparity in shelter-seeking behaviour between the two species.

“What we didn’t necessarily anticipate finding was the horses’ preference to be sheltered from insects in the sunny summer months. With summer and ‘fly season’ just around the corner it is clear that each species requires shelter at different times and for different reasons,” Burden said.

There were also significant differences in the use of natural shelter (such as trees and hedges) by the two species, with donkeys using natural shelter relatively more often to shelter from rain and wind and horses seeking natural shelter relatively more frequently when sunny.

When insect harassment rose, horses went inside, and donkeys went outside, although this could be due to insect harassment increasing at higher temperatures. It shows that the donkeys’ preference for the warm outdoors can even override the discomfort of insects, whereas horses on balance prefer the respite from flies provided inside a shelter. Combinations of weather conditions, with rain and wind together, were the most likely combination to drive both species inside.

© Simon Horn / The Donkey Sanctuary

Dr Leanne Proops said donkeys were much more likely than horses to seek shelter when it was windy, rainy or cold.

“This makes a lot of sense considering the evolutionary history of each species – horses are thought to have been domesticated in the temperate regions of Eurasia, while domestic donkeys originated from the African wild ass in semi-arid regions of Northeast Africa. This means that horses tend to be better adapted to the temperate climate of the UK, whereas donkeys are better suited to hotter, drier climates,” Proops said.

“We hope these findings can be used by those who care for either species to better protect them from conditions they’re not suited to.”

New research shows that horses are more likely to see out shelter from the sun and insects than from cold, wet weather, which makes donkeys run for cover.
New research shows that horses are more likely to see out shelter from the sun and insects than from cold, wet weather, which makes donkeys run for cover.

None of the animals used as part of the research sample were clipped or wore rugs and they had a mixture of coat colours, from light to dark. The temperature, wind speed, rainfall, light and density of, and degree of harassment by flying insects at each site were measured to assess which factors prompted the animals to seek shelter.

Dr Burden concluded: “We would encourage all equine owners to consider providing appropriate shelter to their animals throughout the year so that they can choose when they use it giving them the ability to manage their own needs.”

The Donkey Sanctuary aims to freely provide access to accurate and appropriate scientific information furthering the understanding and therefore standard of welfare of donkeys and mules throughout the world.

Shelter seeking behaviour of donkeys and horses in a temperate climate. Leanne Proops, Britta Osthaus, Nikki Bell, Sarah Long, Kristin Hayday, Faith Burden. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.03.008

One thought on “Weather watch: Equines seek shelter and shade for different reasons

  • May 3, 2019 at 9:45 am
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    I thought that the reason that Donkeys shelter from rain was because their coats are not waterproof… so they are going to shelter from rain before the horse with it’s naturally oiled and double coat? the same reasoning could surely be applied to their relative immunity to insect bite… interesting article but not a lot of visible rigorous or groundbreaking science …

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