It might seem strange that the age-old tradition of stabling horses could lead to animals becoming depressed, but that’s exactly what new research claims.
According to data published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour, stabling horses can actually create problems and leave equines sad and depressed. Buy why?
What is it about stabling that can cause depression? And what can we do about it?
Stabling can increase stress
It is well known that environmental factors can cause stress and horse stables have many aspects that can negatively affect the animals held within them.
At a very basic level, horses do not like being on their own and can become stressed when kept in isolation. As traditional stables are divided into single units of around 25-42 square feet, animals often cannot see their neighbours in adjacent stalls.
This can lead to feelings of isolation and scientists have even discovered that horses become stressed when housed individually and have little or no contact with other animals.
An expert in equine welfare at Nottingham Trent University, Kelly Yarnell, said:
“To the human eye the stable appears safe and inviting and is based on the belief of what the horse finds comfortable.
“However, for a social animal that spends most of its time in close contact with other horses, the isolation brought about by single housing could activate an equine stress response.”
Yarnell went on to explain that this “inadequate housing design” can cause stress amongst horses which can have “negative consequences on the health and wellbeing” of the animals.
Changing the environment is easy
Thankfully, the situation is easily addressed, by simply adding more windows or shared areas to stables can reduce depression and stress.
Simple changes to the layouts of stables can have a dramatic effect and Yarnell concluded that “group housing provides horses with an environment where they are able to display natural behaviour and contact with other horses improves overall welfare”.
It is also important to ensure horses get as natural an environment as possible when being stabled. In the wild, horses form harem bands which typically comprise mares and their foals, yearlings and one stallion. These groups can roam areas of up to 30 square miles.
Although traditional stabling is thought to benefit horses by preventing injury and keeping them from the dangers of predators, hunger, thirst and diseases, the new study argues that horses are healthiest and happiest in the paddock so owners should try to recreate this freedom as much as possible.
“Group housing provides horses with an environment where they are able to display natural behaviour and allows contact, improving overall welfare.
“The behavioural and physiological findings during this study imply that the social housing designs were less aversive than the single housing design and provided an improved standard of equine welfare.”
Research could apply to other animals
Horses aren’t the only animals that can react this way to individual housing though and the findings of this story may relate to other animals kept away from their natural habitats, such as those kept in zoos.
Dr Sue Walker of Chester Zoo said that “the value of this research not only ensures optimal animal welfare for domestic equids but can also inform the management of exotic equids, such as Onagers or Zebra”.