Compromised Welfare in Individually Housed Horses

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By Mark Andrews

Horses are commonly housed in individual boxes. While this may be convenient and prevent injuries from other horses, it may also be detrimental to the horse’s welfare, especially if access to pasture is limited.

A paper by Alice Ruet and colleagues investigated the effect of various management practices on the display of behavioural indicators of compromised welfare in housed horses.

The study involved 187 sport horses housed in individual boxes in four separate barns. They had no access to paddocks or pastures.

The study ran over a nine-month period. The research team recorded various management factors:

  • Individual (age, gender)
  • Housing (window to outside, grill between boxes, bedding material)
  • Feeding (number of concentrate feeds a day)
  • Equitation (discipline, level of performance)
  • Quantity of ration 
  • Activity (number of events during the study, hours ridden per week, hours lunged or on horse walker)

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The longer horses live in individual boxes, the more likely they are to express behaviour that suggests an internal state similar to depression in human beings. Photo: Canstock/Rosselladegradi

They assessed the presence or absence of stereotypic or aggressive behaviour and whether the horse appeared alert or withdrawn, i.e., neck horizontal at same level as back, fixed stare, ears and head static.

They found that horses that had a window opening toward the external environment for the total duration of the study and kept in straw bedding were less aggressive compared to horses that never had this factor and were kept on non-straw bedding.


“Among the housing and management factors commonly observed in individual boxes, most of them did not significantly affect the welfare state of horses,” they report.  

“Only three factors (straw bedding, a window opening toward the external environment, and reduced quantity of concentrated feed received daily) seem to be beneficial, but with limited effects.”

Horses that had a window opening toward the external environment for the total duration of the study and kept in straw bedding were less aggressive compared to horses that never had this factor and were kept on non-straw bedding. Horses kept on straw were more often recorded as showing alertness, compared to those kept on non-straw bedding.

A grilled window on the wall between two boxes did not have a significant effect on the behavioural indicators.

Behaviour was not significantly affected by any of the factors relating to discipline, regularity of training, or level of performance.

“Above all, the longer horses live in individual boxes, the more likely they are to express persistent unresponsiveness to the environment,” the authors add. “The recurrent expression of this posture could reflect an internal state that is likely to be similar to depression in human beings.

“The main relevant result of this study remains that most of the tested factors had no influence on the expression of the behavioural indicators, in particular on unresponsiveness to the environment and stress-related behaviours. This implies that drastic changes in the living and management conditions should be required to improve the welfare state of animals.

“To preserve the welfare of horses, it seems necessary to allow free exercise, interactions with conspecifics [members of the same species], and fibre consumption as often as possible, to ensure the satisfaction of the species’ behavioural and physiological needs.”

For more details, see: Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare, Alice Ruet, Julie Lemarchand, Céline Parias, Núria Mach, Marie-Pierre Moisan, Aline Foury, Christine Briant and Léa Lansade. Animals 2019, 9(9), 621.

Printed with permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update.

Main Photo: Canstock/Welcomia

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