Stress study paints surprising picture of the lives of horses

Could horses kept domestically experience less chronic stress than their free-living counterparts?
Photo by dbarronoss

Proper management of horses by humans may be more respectful of their well-being than life in the wilderness, the findings of research suggest.

Italian researchers based their findings on an analysis of cortisol levels in horse hair, which is considered an indicator of chronic stress levels. Horse hair provides a matrix where cortisol can accumulate over time, forming a stress “archive”.

They found that horses in the wild faced higher ongoing stresses than those living in stables – even those engaged in police work, which is generally considered stressful.

Dr Francesco Cerasoli and his fellow researchers put the increased stress seen in free-living horses down to the risk from predators, the search for food and water, and social dynamics, when compared to those who were stabled and well managed.

The study, reported recently in the journal Animals, was conducted by the Animal Welfare Department of the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Teramo.

The researchers examined 47 horses, divided into three groups: Sixteen belonged to the State Police of Ladispoli, where they carried out training and field work; 16 were engaged in public order services with the Rome State Police; and 15 were living in the wild in the mountains of Abruzzo region, recruited thanks to the collaboration of a local breeder.

All the subjects were previously selected on the basis of the absence of acute and chronic illness. All met the main evaluation parameters of the European Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) protocol.

All the horses had their hair analysed for cortisol. The tests, performed with a standardized procedure and with an analysis method used for the first time for this purpose, delivered unexpected results.

“We saw that the cortisol level was higher in the group of horses living in the wild than in the two groups kept in the stable and employed in intense work activities,” Cerasoli said.

The evidence contradicts some common beliefs around free-ranging animals that, given the freedom to express their natural behaviours, they would experience higher levels of well-being than those kept by humans and used in work.

The findings suggest that stress factors induced by adequate human management, even with work, have a lesser impact than those present in the wild.

“Our study shows that the animals managed by State Police, although subjected to work and/or public order service – an activity presumably rich in stressful factors – experience lower cortisol levels. Our conclusion is that proper management by humans seems more respectful of horses’ well-being than a pure nature condition.”

Institute general manager Dr Nicola D’Alterio said the study included a greater number of animals than other previous international research in this area.

“The findings pave a very interesting path towards understanding the factors that contribute to equine well-being. And we must highlight how this survey technique, which can also be extended to other species, could be an objective tool for assessing stress, becoming a point of reference for animal welfare, a field sparking a growing interest in recent years.”

Cerasoli, F.; Podaliri Vulpiani, M.; Saluti, G.; Conte, A.; Ricci, M.; Savini, G.; D’Alterio, N. Assessment of Welfare in Groups of Horses with Different Management, Environments and Activities by Measuring Cortisol in Horsehair, Using Liquid Chromatography Coupled to Hybrid Orbitrap High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry. Animals 2022, 12, 1739.

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

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