Study findings paint a damning picture of individual stabling of horses

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French researchers paint a worrying picture of individual stabling.
French researchers paint a worrying picture of individual stabling.

Individual stabling is not a healthy living arrangement for horses, the findings of French research suggest.

Researchers examined 12 key housing and management factors to determine if they had any effect on the welfare of stabled horses. Most did not.

Only three factors – straw bedding, a window opening toward the external environment, and reducing the quantity of concentrated feed received daily – seem to be beneficial, but even these had limited effects.

“Above all, the longer horses live in individual boxes, the more likely they are to express persistent unresponsiveness to the environment,” Alice Ruet and her colleagues reported in the open-access journal Animals.

The study findings paint a worrying picture of individual stabling – a housing method commonly employed around the world.

The study team, all with the agricultural science agency INRA, said previous research had already shown that individual boxing harmed horse welfare. It could trigger the expression of four behavioural indicators of poor welfare: stereotypies, aggressiveness toward humans, unresponsiveness to the environment, and stress-related behaviours.

The researchers set out to investigate whether a range of factors could alleviate the negative effects of individual boxing.

In the nine-month study, they examined the influence of gender, age, choice of bedding, time spent in a box with an external window, the presence or otherwise of a grill window between other stalls, the use of concentrated feed, the equestrian discipline of each horse, their level of performance and the amount of time spent competing or training.

“The results,” they said, “show that the majority of the factors studied did not influence the expression of the indicators.

“Overall, the main conclusion of this study is that the detrimental effects caused by the spatial, social, and dietary deprivations of this housing system could not be alleviated by small facilities in the box or changes in management practices.

To preserve the welfare of horses, it seems necessary to allow free exercise, they said, including interactions with other horses, and fibre consumption as often as possible. These factors seemed to ensure the satisfaction of the species’ behavioural and physiological needs.

The authors noted that, despite the apparent detrimental effects of the box environment, it remained the main type of housing system for sport horses (32% to 90% of horses depending on the country) and especially so for valuable ones.

The main arguments in its favour relate to practicality, safety, and comfort issues for caretakers and animals. For these reasons, horses’ keepers are often reluctant to use another type of system, particularly group housing.

The study involved 187 warmblood sport horses housed in individual boxes in four distinct barns within the same stable, without access to paddocks or pastures.

All boxes measured around 9 square metres and were cleaned six mornings out of seven. However, the individual characteristics of housing and other management factors varied between horses.

For example, some stalls had external windows while others did not. Others had grilled windows between two boxes allowing visual and restricted contact with the neighbouring animal.

Some horses had straw bedding, others did not. Horses received different quantities of concentrated rations, depending on their physical condition or activity. They also worked in different disciplines, therefore undergoing different training.

The research involved Ruet, who is an experienced observer of equine behaviour, walking regularly in front of the individual boxes to see whether, in a three-second window, they expressed any of the behavioural indicators suggestive of poor welfare. These included crib-biting, windsucking, head weaving or bobbing, aggressive behaviours or a withdrawn posture.

Each horse was observed for five scans per day on 50 non-consecutive days distributed over a nine-month period.

“To alleviate the deprivations caused by individual boxes, it may be tempting to think that some factors regarding the housing system or the management practices would be beneficial for the welfare state of horses,” the authors wrote.

“This could have been the case, for example, by increasing physical activity through riding, lunging or using an automatic walker, or by providing specific facilities in the box, such as the presence of a grilled window allowing social contact.

“However, the results show that this would not be the case.”

Indeed, using three separate analyses, only three environmental factors seemed to significantly influence the welfare state of horses living in individual boxes: an external window, straw bedding, and the amounted of concentrated feed received.

The possibility for horses to have limited contact through a grilled window on the wall between two boxes did not have a significant effect on behaviour.

“The main relevant result of this study remains that the majority of the tested factors had no influence on the expression of the behavioural indicators, in particular on unresponsiveness to the environment and stress-related behaviours.

“This implies that drastic changes in the living and management conditions should be required to improve the welfare state of animals.

“Indeed, confinement in individual boxes imposes spatial and social deprivations that prevent animals from satisfying movement and social needs, for which they appear highly motivated.

“On the contrary, other environments such as pasture with other horses could theoretically satisfy these species’ needs and thus restore an optimal welfare state.”

The full study team comprised Ruet, Julie Lemarch, Céline Parias, Núria Mach, Marie-Pierre Moisan, Aline Foury, Christine Briant and Léa Lansade.

Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare
Alice Ruet, Julie Lemarchand, Céline Parias, Núria Mach, Marie-Pierre Moisan, Aline Foury, Christine Briant and Léa Lansade.
Animals 2019, 9(9), 621; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9090621

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

12 thoughts on “Study findings paint a damning picture of individual stabling of horses

  • September 7, 2019 at 7:00 am
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    I can completely concur with these findings after my mare who I found out whilst on full livery was confined to a fully enclosed breeze block stable without my knowledge. After jumping out of the stable they put a top door on so she couldn’t look out. When she reared up against the partition to the next stable they whipped her feet with a lunging whip. She was deprived bedding after I was told she messed too much and would only be allowed bedding after she learnt not to. She became aggressive and increasingly angry with me. Once moved she was a different horse.

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  • September 7, 2019 at 5:59 pm
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    Complete bs. I know often horses pastured suffer agregious neglect. Not consistent hoof, vet care, no proper dental work, unruly from running too freely, hard bound and pasture soured. Warmbloods differ from Quarters and stock types and so forth. Stabling isn’t the issue. Our neighbor pictures constantly has broken fencing, health issues with founder and colic. Horses are neglected hpofcare. They have injured people because they now refuse riders or regular care without sedation it’s impossible. They lose condition on pasture as the owner doesn’t realize the grass is gone and doesn’t make up rations and hay. The horses are out often. Stabling isn’t the enemy. Not doing routine rotation of both is the enemy.

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    • September 8, 2019 at 5:34 am
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      No it’s not bs. Your neighbor neglecting to feed and vet their pastured horses has nothing to do with the results of a study on the social, mental, and dietary needs of stabled horses.

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    • September 8, 2019 at 8:46 am
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      Sounds like the owner is the problem not the way they are kept.

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    • September 9, 2019 at 6:10 am
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      I agree it is people taking care of the horse, the type of character of the horse, and the work riding that if they are getting something to do to work their mind then they are fine. took care of many a horse stable worked well and maybe 2 hour turn out at least. Stallions and mares no difference. the woman with the mare had her with the wrong very wrong people. and all horses are individuals. should be done case by case

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    • September 9, 2019 at 6:16 am
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      The article says nothing about neglecting the horses that are in pasture. I would assume that even if they are in pasture, they should still receive regular vet, dental and hoof care as well as food. And obviously, if you are putting them in pasture rather than stable, you would continue to train them. The barn that I ride at has a group of horses that live in the pasture and another group who are stabled (depending on owner preference, price and horse personality) I will say the pastured ones seem to have fewer health issues although both groups can be jerks or sweethearts on any given day.

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    • September 15, 2019 at 6:37 am
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      I agree they could benefit from routine rotation. The pasture situation you describe is nothing less than neglect. They are made to roam free but we can do better than 24/7 stabling. Most people only feed twice per day. Their digestive system is not set up for this. I wish people would take care of them properly or not own them. One or the other.

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  • September 8, 2019 at 3:33 am
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    Horses are herd animals so this makes perfect sense. It is as ever, the owners who are the problem.

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  • September 8, 2019 at 7:31 am
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    Thank you for publishing their work… I’m sure it’s going to be controversial because we humans forget that the reason horses live in stalls is for our convenience, most people don’t know how to assess welfare without anthropomorphic measures, and because we are naked.
    Appreciate the information very much. We have to do better for our horses.

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  • September 10, 2019 at 3:21 pm
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    I agree that stabling as little as possible is the best, I live in New Zealand and luckily our temperature is not extreme and horses can live outdoors all year round. They of course still need to have adequate food, shelter and care to maintain health. I only stable my ridden horses at night during the colder winter months, otherwise keep them outdoors as natural as possible with company.
    I would imagine living in very cold places with snow on the ground for many months the horse are possibly better housed indoors. I have seen pictures of horses housed together in groups overseas.

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  • September 12, 2019 at 5:43 am
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    No matter where we keep them – attentive care is optimal. Ideally – in a social environment is absolute best. Our horses all live in oversized grass paddocks and fed premium hay 3 x /day. No grain – but they have a mineral block. They have 3 sided sheds for shelter. Our herd from 13-15 can vary depending on the personal plans of their owners. Disciplines vary. Attentive riders vary. But outside, with at least one pasture mate and the ability to socialize at auto waterers and always something to nibble on, the horses of different breeds – from off the track Thoroughbreds, to Quarter horse Western disciplines, to world class bloodlines in show jumpers and dressage horses, they are all calm and relaxed – without exception. Our newest herd member of one week was labeled as a “dangerous animal” by some who knew him and kept inside to protect himself from injury. Once released, we couldn’t catch him for 2 days, but he now easily joins up and meets us at the gate for his schooling sessions. He’s a relaxed happy guy. We have him next to his soon-to-be paddock mate and indications are that they’ll get along well together. Whenever we introduce 2 friends into the one paddock, it’s quite touching how pleased they are. Outside, social living is the best for horses we believe. They still need watchful supervision.

    Reply
    • September 15, 2019 at 6:36 am
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      Love your attitude and methods

      Reply

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