“The differences in the number of encounters between horses in the two types of paddocks in our study were huge,” said Katarzyna Majecka, PhD, of the University of Lódz, in Poland.
Those encounters included both positive and negative interactions—from mutual grooming to threats and kicks. The reduction in positive interactions went hand-in-hand with fewer negative interactions when moving the horses to a larger grass paddock from a smaller sand paddock. But the benefits of having fewer negative interactions are undeniable, said Majecka and fellow researcher Aneta Klawe, MSc.
“Large paddocks make it possible for submissive horses to avoid the company of aggressive individuals and, hence, they can prevent injury,” the researchers stated.
In their study, Majecka and Klawe observed 78 riding school horses, divided into three groups, over two periods in two situations. Two of the three groups spent daylight hours outdoors in their groups in a paddock, and the third group stayed outdoors permanently. In the first period, which lasted from March to April, their paddock was small, square, and sandy, with a surface area of about 150 to 180 square meters (1,600 to 1,950 square feet) per horse. In the second period, from May to July, they roamed in a larger, irregularly shaped pasture with grassy areas. These larger pastures offered about 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) per horse.
They found significant reductions in both aggressive and friendly behavior across all three groups when moving the horses from the small paddock to the large paddock. As far as comparisons among the groups is concerned, they found no differences in the number of aggressive interactions between the first, second, or third group. However, they did notice that the third group—which stayed outdoors even at night—had twice as many positive interactions as the other two groups. Breed might have also played a role, the researchers said, as the third group was made up mostly of Shetland ponies.
Meanwhile, it’s also possible that grass availability, in addition to paddock size, affected the results, they said. The horses in the small sand paddocks gathered in small groups when food was distributed and often had aggressive interactions fighting over the food. However, on the grass paddock the horses spread out and interacted far less.
While the study confirms what many horse managers have known for years—it’s better to give horses more space—it begs the question about what to do when large paddocks aren’t available. Should horses be denied turnout time with other horses if paddocks are small?
“In my opinion the worst thing to do is deny horses access to any kind of paddock at all,” Majecka said. “Over millions years of evolution, this species has been living on an open grass area, and today, such an environment remains the most suitable for it. A lot has been written about the advantages of being outdoors for domestic horses, such as better digestion, using excess energy, and mental equilibrium. Likewise, horses are herd animals, and social interactions between members of the herd are desirable for them.
“On the other hand, it is not possible to decisively conclude that a small shared paddock is better than no paddock at all or a small shared paddock than an individual paddock,” she continued. “It depends on different circumstances, such as the age of the horses and their temperament. Individual character (level of aggression, etc.) and the specific relationships between given individuals have to be taken into consideration.”
The study, “Influence of Paddock Size on Social Relationships in Domestic Horses,” was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.