Companions Help Reduce Horses’ Anxiety During Procedures

Researchers recently determined that horses appear more bothered by social isolation than mild pain.
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Researchers recently determined that horses appear more bothered by social isolation than mild pain. | Photo: iStock
Free-ranging horses are very social and live in large mixed-age herds. Even so, domestic horses are often individually stabled. Welfare concerns about social isolation, as well as evidence that turning horses out in pairs, small groups, or herds is beneficial,1 have led to changes in equine housing practices.

But what happens when the horse is removed from the herd? Separating a horse from its companions for veterinary care, hoof trimming, or training is likely more distressing for group living than for individually stabled horses. The distress might also be more severe when the procedure is painful or unpleasant.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Katherine Reid, MS (Biomed), BVSc, and associates at Massey University’s Equine Research Centre, in New Zealand, evaluated what happens when horses are isolated from conspecifics during routine equine management procedures.2 They looked at the separate and combined effects of social isolation and mild pain in six Standardbred horses which had lived together on pasture for two years as part of the university’s teaching herd and were regularly handled by veterinary staff and students.

To see how horses would respond behaviorally and physiologically to social isolation and mild pain, the researchers first placed each horse in a turnout next to a familiar herdmate, with visual, olfactory (scent), and tactile contact over a fence

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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