Rethink needed on stallion housing, say researchers

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Two-year-old Warmblood colts without any sexual experience being kept in a group on pasture. Photo: de Oliveira et al. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773
Two-year-old Warmblood colts without any sexual experience being kept in a group on pasture. Photo: de Oliveira et al. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773

Changes are needed to the long-term traditions around stallion accommodation to improve their overall welfare, according to the authors of a recently published review.

Rodrigo Arruda de Oliveira and Christine Aurich examined aspects of breeding stallion management with a focus on animal welfare in their paper in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.

The pair noted that, in the wild, mature stallions live in social groups. However, under domestic conditions there is usually a considerable reduction in their social interaction.

“This is a welfare issue clearly reflected in an increased incidence of behavioral problems in adult stallions,” they said.

The use of tie-stalls – quite common in Europe until the 1980s – is still used on large stud farms in Eastern Europe, they noted.

Tie-stalls are associated with increased health problems, especially in stallions, most likely reflecting a long-term lack of exercise and standing on wet and soiled bedding.

Nowadays, breeding stallions are usually housed in individual boxes together in a barn. but separated from mares. This housing system is mostly maintained throughout the year, independent of the stallions’ breeding activity.

A partition in a "social box", where part of the partition between two adjacent boxes is replaced by strong vertical metal bars at 30cm intervals. The two spaces allow horses to get in direct tactile contact with each other Image: Agroscope, Swiss national stud farm, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773
A partition in a “social box”, where part of the partition between two adjacent boxes is replaced by strong vertical metal bars at 30cm intervals. The two spaces allow horses to get in direct tactile contact with each other Image: Agroscope, Swiss national stud farm, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773

The pair, citing 68 scientific papers in their view, found that, under domestic conditions, social contact in breeding stallions is strictly limited.

The perceived need for such risk prevention strategies is often counterproductive to their living conditions, they said.

The resulting social deprivation stimulates aggressiveness and increases stereotypic behaviors – undesirable repetitive behaviors such as head weaving and cribbing.

The authors felt that housing conditions for stallions can be improved while still maintaining certain requirements of breeders. In colts, changes in their management may improve their social skills as adults, they suggest.

Changes and reconsideration of long-term traditions in stallion accommodation are necessary, they argued.

(A) shows adult Shetland research stallions at the Vienna Centre for Artificial Insemination. The animals, regularly used for semen collection, are kept in a bachelor group. (B) and (C) shows the paint stallion in the front after being bitten by one of his group mates in the following winter season. Photo: de Oliveira et al. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773
(A) shows adult Shetland research stallions at the Vienna Centre for Artificial Insemination. The animals, regularly used for semen collection, are kept in a bachelor group. (B) and (C) shows the paint stallion in the front after being bitten by one of his group mates in the following winter season. Photo: de Oliveira et al. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773

The greatest problem with the well-being of breeding stallions is their lack of direct social interaction with other horses. “It must therefore be the aim to allow stallions more social contact without endangering their health and fertility.” This is, however, not an easy task, they acknowledged.

“Nowadays on breeding farms with several stallions, they are frequently housed together in stallion barns, intentionally placed outside the range of visual or auditory contact with the barns housing mares.”

This, they said, may simulate living in a bachelor herd, but the lack of full-scale physical contact among neighbors in singly stabled stallions limits the formation of relationships typically seen in horses living in groups.

“In contrast, in old-fashioned tie-stalls used for accommodation of stallions on large stud farms outside the breeding season in former times, the opportunity of an increased social contact may explain a low incidence of stereotypies.

“This advantage is, however, clearly counteracted by the lack of opportunity for free movement and exercise, resulting in considerable health problems.” It is, they said, the reason that tie-stalls are no longer accepted in many countries.

In singly stabled horses, research has shown that the opportunity of close visual and tactile contact with the neighboring horse through a grille in the partition reduces stereotypic behaviors.

This system was recently extended further by the introduction of a so-called “social box”. Part of the partition between two adjacent boxes is replaced by several strong vertical metal bars at 30cm intervals. Stallions can put their head, neck and one of their forelimbs through the spaces between bars and get in direct tactile contact with each other.

The remaining part of the partition is solid and thus allows for privacy.

“This system has recently been introduced into the stallion barn of a German sport horse stud farm. Aggressive behavior was limited to the first hours after housing the stallions in the barn,” they noted.

Minor head injuries occurred but may be minimized by using a different construction material for the vertical bars, they said.

“The fact that under wildlife conditions, stallions will almost always live in social groups is unknown to many horse enthusiasts,” the authors said.

The picture of fighting stallions bringing each other close to death has been kept alive for centuries by numerous books and movies.

“At their first encounter, unfamiliar stallions will display pronounced aggressive behavior that discourages the majority of owners and breeders from keeping adult stallions in groups.”

Researchers, they noted, had investigated keeping adult breeding stallions in groups on spacious pastures well away from mares and other horses. Among Franches-Montagne stallions, a Swiss draft horse breed, aggression was found to subside quickly and remained low four days after group integration.

Ritual behavior occurred much more frequently than both aggressive or bonding-driven interactions.

It has become a tradition at the end of the breeding season for Noriker draft horse stallions to spend some weeks in groups on spacious separated mountain pastures.
It has become a tradition at the end of the breeding season for Noriker draft horse stallions to spend some weeks in groups on spacious separated mountain pastures. Image by strichpunkt

In Austria, it has become a recent tradition at the end of the breeding season for Noriker draft horse stallions to spend some weeks in groups on spacious separated mountain pastures.

“The day of integration of the stallions into the groups is visited by many spectators watching the impressive ritual fights among stallions, but apparently no great injuries occur.”

There are, they said, more examples illustrating that group housing of mature breeding stallions is possible.

“Nevertheless, many owners of valuable stallions will still resist following this idea because, in such animals, even minor injuries may cause considerable financial loss.”

Fortunately, major wounds and injuries are not often experienced, the authors noted.

They said optimizing the environmental conditions of a stallion barn to allow increased physical contact may help stallion welfare.

Caregivers might also find it important to decide if stallions housed in adjacent boxes tend to sympathize or fight with each other, and reorganize the barn accordingly.

Social stabling of stallions also requires stability within the group and will not benefit from continuous changes in group composition, they said.

They noted that young stallions are usually reared in groups, but then separated into single stalls, often with no more direct contact with their previous group mates up to the age of two.

One study showed that the social deprivation of young stallions for nine months resulted in remarkable long-term differences in their social behavior when compared to stallions of the same age continuously kept in small groups.

“This suggests that the sudden isolation of young stallions from their group mates at the beginning of training is worth reconsidering.

“Keeping them in contact with preferred group mates at least for several hours per day, i.e., when turned out into pasture or a spacious paddock, may be an option to avoid immediate complete social deprivation and the loss of social skills.”

General changes in the husbandry of young stallions, including when transitioning into their performance and/or breeding career, may help to produce stallions with better social skills, they suggested.

Because horses housed with others are less prone to develop abnormal behaviors, there has to be a continuous and increasing effort to provide adult stallions with opportunities for closer physical contact, they said.

Professor De Oliveira is a researcher and chair of Stallion Reproductive Studies at the University of Brasília in Brazil; and Professor Aurich is a specialist in equine reproduction at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni).

Aspects of Breeding Stallion Management with Specific Focus on Animal Welfare. Rodrigo Arruda de Oliveira, Christine Aurich, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 107, 2021, 103773, ISSN 0737-0806, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773.

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

 

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