There was a common belief that horses naturally belonged in stables. We have always lazily considered that the dog is in his kennel, the pig is in his sty, the horse is in his stable and God is in His Heaven.
ANNA SALLEH: As the COVID-19 pandemic reminded us, we humans are social animals who can suffer mentally from isolation. Now new research supports the view that horses also get stressed without the company of their own. It supports a growing number of studies that suggest horses need more freedom and friends than they often get, although change in traditional stabling practices is likely to be slow.
A small German study released… in PLOS ONE compared the physiology of horses kept in individual stables with that of those kept in a group. The 12 two and three-year-old German Warmblood castrated male horses were kept in 3.2 x 3.5 metre spaces, had limited contact with their neighbours through barred windows, and were only let out for 30 minutes a day.
Blood tests showed signs of a stressed immune system in the stabled horses, including a persistent increase in the ratio of neutrophils to lymphocytes (both types of white blood cells), but not in those kept in a group.
“The results of the present study … strongly indicate that social isolation is a chronic stressor,” wrote one of the report’s authors, Sonja Schmucker of the University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, and colleagues. “[A] resulting decrease in immunocompetence might increase disease susceptibility of the horses and thus impair their health and welfare.”
Australian veterinarian Paul McGreevy of the University of New England, who was not involved in the study, said horses are social animals that did not evolve to be in isolation from each other. “They enjoy each other’s company on the whole, unless they’ve been poorly reared,” Professor McGreevy said. “They lower their heart rates when they groom each other. So, if they can spend time close to each other and mutually groom, they thrive.”
But he suggested there was a common belief that horses naturally belonged in stables. “We have always lazily considered that the dog is in his kennel, the pig is in his sty, the horse is in his stable and God is in His Heaven,” Professor McGreevy said…
Dr Kirrilly Thompson, who studies horse and human interactions as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Newcastle, argued the need for horses to be in a group has deep roots. “It’s not just about friendship, but about how they regulate their emotions,” she said…
Dr Thompson said the latest thinking in animal welfare sees a horse’s mental wellbeing as important as their physical health. In other words, it’s not just about the animals surviving, but having “a life worth living”.
And she also likened horses in stables to humans during COVID-19 shutdowns. “The outward appearances is they’re well fed, they’ve got access to the internet and the air quality’s alright. “But they’re not thriving, and a lot of them are bored and shut down and their mental health is compromised. “And it’s the same with horses.”
Interestingly, some research has linked individual boxing of horses with a persistent unresponsiveness to their environment to depression in human beings. “If we discovered the horse today, and it was a newly discovered species, we would not keep them the way we currently keep them,” Dr Thomson said. SOURCE…