Welfare state of horses revealed by their topline – research

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The location of the different points used to assess posture, based on the horses’ topline. Landmarks are represented as crosses and the semi-sliding landmaks as red dots. Image: Sénèque et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211852

The topline of a horse provides important insights into its wellbeing, French researchers have found.

Horses, they noted, are well known for responding to restrictive conditions by developing abnormal behaviours such as stereotypies, and expressing depressed postures or higher emotional states.

Emilie Sénèque and her colleagues from the University of Rennes hypothesized that horses with compromised welfare would reveal them through chronic body postures.

For their study, they carried out posture analysis using morphometric geometrics to measure, quantify and compare postures between horses.

They investigated photographs of 85 riding school horses — 50 geldings and 35 mares — known to differ in terms of their welfare state.

The welfare state of each horse was assessed based on the prevalence of stereotypic or abnormal repetitive behaviours, depressed-like posture and the position of their ears.

The technology enabled the researchers to assess 30 points along each horse’s topline.

Back problems are common in horses, research has shown, but their presence and intensity are often underestimated by horse owners.

The study team found that horses with stereotypic or abnormal behaviours, and to a lesser degree those with depressed-like postures, tended to have a flatter, or even hollow, topline profile, especially at the neck and croup.

These horses with compromised welfare can clearly be differentiated through their overall posture, they said.

Photographs of two types of riding school horses. The two photographs in A show riding school horses which presented characteristic elements of posture associated with poor welfare. These horses expressed stereotypic behaviour and abnormal repetitive behaviours, and showed “depressed-like” posture too. The horses shown in B did not express these kinds of behaviours and did not adopt a “depressed-like” posture. These horses did not show the characteristic elements of posture associated with poor welfare. Image: Sénèque et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211852

“These findings show that poor welfare is also associated with chronic alterations of posture, erasing the natural curves of the horse’s spine,” the researchers reported in the open-access journal, PLOS ONE.

“These results confirm and deepen the results obtained in earlier studies.

“These altered profiles could represent an additional indicator of poor welfare, easy to use in the field or by owners.”

The full study team comprised Sénèque, Clémence Lesimple and Martine Hausberger, all from the University of Rennes; and a France-based independent biostatistician Stéphane Morisset.

Sénèque E, Lesimple C, Morisset S, Hausberger M (2019) Could posture reflect welfare state? A study using geometric morphometrics in riding school horses. PLoS ONE 14(2): e0211852. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211852

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

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