Stocking density affects behaviour in penned horses, study finds

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More attention needs to be paid to the housing and management conditions under which horses reared for meat production are kept in order to improve their welfare, according to researchers in Italy.

Horses reared for meat production are often kept in group pens at high stocking densities.

The study team noted a lack of scientific knowledge around the welfare of horses reared this way.

University of Turin researcher Federica Raspa and her colleagues set out to assess whether the behaviours of horses kept in this way were affected by stocking density. The time-budget of the horses was also studied to evaluate if and how it differed from that of wild-living horses.

Their work was conducted at the biggest horse breeding farm for meat production in Northern Italy. The farm adopts intensive farming methods and sends 2000 horses to slaughter each year. The management of the horses was not changed in any way for the study.

The research focused on 22 horses across three group pens with different stocking densities (from 4 square metres per horse to 6 square metres per horse).

“We found that the expression of locomotion, playing, and self-grooming increased as the space allowance per horse within the group pens increased, indicating the potential to use these behaviours as indicators of positive welfare,” the authors reported in the open-access journal Animals.

The way the penned horses spent their time was different to wild-living horses, suggesting compromised welfare in the penned animals, they said.

“Standing was the main expressed behavioural activity. A higher than usual amount of time was spent in a lying position, and a lower than usual amount of time was dedicated to feeding and locomotion,” they reported.

Standing occupied 30.56% of the time of the penned horses, followed by feeding (30.55%), lying (27.33%), and locomotion (4.07%).

By comparison, Przewalski’s horses spend 46.4% of their day feeding, 33.87% of the day standing, 7.4% of the day in locomotion, and 5.3% of the day lying down. A study of young Camargue horses shows they spend at least 56.37% of their daily time-budget engaged in feeding behaviour, 19.41% standing, 6.97% lying down, and 5.55% of their time in locomotion, with variations according to the seasons.

“It seems that the environmental constraints imposed by the breeding farm resulted in these horses lying down more and moving less compared with Przewalski and Camargue horses,” the authors wrote.

The amount of space available at the feed bunkers in each pen was also important, they said.

The authors said that because a lower stocking density had a positive impact on locomotion, playing, and self-grooming, they could be used as indicators of positive welfare in young horses kept in group pens.

“The results show that more attention needs to be directed at the housing and management conditions under which horses reared for meat production are kept in order to improve their welfare.”

The study team comprised Raspa, Martina Tarantola, Domenico Bergero, Joana Nery, Alice Visconti and Chiara Maria Mastrazzo and Emanuela Valle, all with the University of Turin; Damiano Cavallini, with the University of Bologna; and Ermenegildo Valvassori, with the Public Veterinary Service.

Raspa, F.; Tarantola, M.; Bergero, D.; Nery, J.; Visconti, A.; Mastrazzo, C.M.; Cavallini, D.; Valvassori, E.; Valle, E. Time-Budget of Horses Reared for Meat Production: Influence of Stocking Density on Behavioural Activities and Subsequent Welfare. Animals 2020, 10, 1334.

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

One thought on “Stocking density affects behaviour in penned horses, study finds

  • August 5, 2020 at 10:49 am
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    A study on lower stocking densities and horse slaughter??? Welcome to Barberic practices. The researchers would be well advised to focus time and research efforts towards the connection between Covid bacteria present in equines, and how it manifests in people who consume horse meat.

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