How your horse spends its day can reveal a lot about its well-being

A happy horse herd.
A happy horse herd. Image by Наталья Коллегова

The way in which your horse spends its day is a likely reflection of its well-being, according to researchers.

The findings of a review by researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna found that time budgets between semi-feral horses and domestic horses were similar when the latter were provided with free access to food, increased space to roam, and decreased population density.

The studies examined in their review support the importance of environmental conditions for horses’ well-being and the ability of time budgets to assist in monitoring horses’ welfare, the authors said.

Ulrike Auer and her colleagues, writing in the journal Animals, said horse behavior is a good indicator of welfare status. “However, its complexity requires objective, quantifiable, and unambiguous evidence-based assessment criteria.”

Healthy, stress-free horses exhibit a highly repetitive daily routine, they said.

Examination of a horse’s time budget — the amount of time in a 24-hour period spent on specific activities — can aid in equine welfare assessments.

The review team identified 12 scientific papers that assessed equine time budgets for eating, resting and movement for a minimum of 24 continuous hours. The papers covered a total of 144 horses, aged 1 to 27.

In all, 59 were semi-feral and 85 domesticated.

The reported 24-hour time budgets for eating ranged from 10% to 66.6%. Resting ranged from 8.1% to 66%, while lying down ranged from 2.7% to 27.3%. Time spent moving ranged from 0.015% of time to 19.1%.

“The large variance in time budgets between studies can largely be attributed to differences in age and environmental conditions,” Auer and her colleagues noted.

The differences in the average time budgets between semi‐feral and domesticated adult horses were especially evident for eating, with the former eating for 50.82% to 66.6% of the time, versus 10% to 64% for domesticated equines.

“Feeding time budgets are relevant for equine welfare because the reduction of the time spent foraging may induce health problems such as gastric inflammation and ulceration.

“Insufficient eating times have also been associated with the emergence of stereotypies and abnormal behavior.

“In contrast, management interventions providing increased foraging opportunities have shown to decrease abnormal behavior.”

There were also marked differences in time spent resting — 12.9% to 29.3% for semi-feral horses versus 15.6% to 66% for domesticated horses.

The review team said that while the limitations of feeding opportunities and feed availability have different causes in semi‐feral and domesticated horses, offering free access to food to domesticated horses increased their time spent eating to levels similar to those seen in their semi‐feral counterparts.

“Horses kept in small paddocks or densely populated group pens exhibited significantly increased resting times.

“Decreasing stocking density reduced the high resting times to levels approximating the time budgets seen in other studies and increased locomotion, playing, and self‐grooming.”

The evidence they said, supported the usefulness of time budgets for monitoring interventions aimed at improving horses’ welfare.

“Activity time budgets allow an objective, quantitative on‐farm welfare assessment and comparison of different management, feeding, and housing systems,” they concluded.

In addition, changes in time budgets can be used to identify unsatisfactory conditions and monitor the success of management interventions to improve equine welfare.

Further studies of larger horse groups that live in clearly defined housing and management conditions were needed to further validate and establish the use of time budgets as a reliable indicator of horse welfare, they said.

Auer, U.; Kelemen, Z.; Engl, V.; Jenner, F. Activity Time Budgets—A Potential Tool to Monitor Equine Welfare? Animals 2021, 11, 850.

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

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