Elderly horses and those with ongoing orthopaedic problems divide up their days much the same way as their healthy counterparts, researchers report.
Zsofia Kelemen and her fellow researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna noted that domestic horses are kept in a variety of housing systems, which offer differing levels of physical freedom, foraging opportunities, and contact with other horses.
The effect of different housing systems on equine welfare and behaviour, however, remains understudied, with research largely limited to small groups of healthy horses and manual scoring of behaviour.
The researchers, writing in the journal Animals, said housing and management conditions have been shown to strongly influence the health, welfare and activity behaviour of horses. Therefore, comparing the time budget of horses in different domestic environments may help to objectively and quantitatively assess welfare and monitor interventions.
In this context, it is important to also study those animals at risk of poor welfare, such as older horses or those with chronic diseases, to establish their time budget parameters.
Their study involved 104 horses owned by an animal sanctuary. They comprised 54 warmbloods, 16 draft horses and 34 of other breeds.
They were housed in neighbouring farms managed by equine sanctuary staff under similar conditions, but with three different management conditions and daily routines.
Horses were either housed in individual box stalls with turnout, small group stalls with an attached pen and turnout, and open-air management in groups of 9 or 10 with a run-in shelter.
Every horse had a turn-out for 3 to 24 hours daily, depending on weather and ground conditions. During hot summer temperatures, horses were turned-out to pasture at night. Horses had full access to clean water and were fed hay during paddock turn-out, with additional hay in the stable in the afternoon.
Horses with poor teeth or additional nutritional requirements received supplementary feeding.
Based on their age, physical and orthopaedic examination, the horses were assigned to one of four health/age groups: Horses younger than 20 with chronic orthopaedic disease; those aged 20 or more with chronic orthopaedic disease; sound horses aged 20 or more; and sound horses aged under 20 (which served as the control group).
The horses were tracked twice within a 9-month period, once in spring/summer and once in autumn/winter, for 5-10 days using the Hoofstep automated equine monitoring system – a wearable horse unit that contains a GPS, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a radio transmitter.
The researchers found that horses living on different farms and with different turn-out conditions differed in their time budgets.
Horses living in open-air group conditions on a paddock had less pronounced peaks in their feeding and movement activities over time compared to horses living in more restricted husbandry systems.
The horses spent, on average, 42% of their day eating, 39% resting, and 19% in movement.
The geriatric horses and those animals with chronic orthopaedic problems had time budgets equivalent to the healthy control group, and largely also within the ranges observed in free-ranging horses, the study team reported.
“We could demonstrate that geriatric horses and horses suffering from chronic orthopaedic disease can, under appropriate husbandry conditions, exhibit behaviour time budgets equivalent to healthy adult controls.
“While similar time budgets do not imply good welfare per se, they indicate an equal ability of the geriatric and chronically lame horses compared with the healthy control group to cope with their environment.”
They said the significant time budget differences revealed between farms and turn-out conditions highlighted potential areas for improvement.
The more uniform distribution of feeding and movement over time in the horses living in open-air group housing, compared to those in more restricted husbandry systems, may indicate less stress, they said.
In the future, horses that vary significantly from average time budgets measured under specific husbandry conditions may help to identify individual animals at risk of poor welfare, who require an additional assessment to determine their welfare status.
The study team comprised Kelemen, Herwig Grimm, Claus Vogl, Mariessa Long, Jessika Cavalleri, Ulrike Auer, and Florien Jenner, all with the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.
Kelemen, Z.; Grimm, H.; Vogl, C.; Long, M.; Cavalleri, J.M.V.; Auer, U.; Jenner, F. Equine Activity Time Budgets: The Effect of Housing and Management Conditions on Geriatric Horses and Horses with Chronic Orthopaedic Disease. Animals 2021, 11, 1867. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11071867