Give them a toy, you say. A mirror, a hanging ball, a bell. A window, more feed, straw bedding. They’ll be happier, you say.
Nice try, a research team says.
According to a new study, horses show behavioral signs of poor welfare while housed in box stalls, regardless of their “enrichment” status. And the longer they’re confined, the more extreme those signs get.
“There’s this idea that adding toys and brushes and windows and different bedding can make stalled horses’ life dramatically better, but that’s clearly a myth,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours.
“This kind of ‘enrichment’ can’t replace what’s essential, which is to give horses the possibility to express the basic behaviors of their species: move freely, have social contacts, and access forage throughout the day,” she explained. “Once they’ve got that, then we can add the ‘extras’—toys and so forth. But it’s important to remember: These have to be added to the rest, not substituted for it.”
The Study: Observing 187 Stalled Horses on 50 Days
In their study Lansade and her fellow researchers, which included Alice Ruet, who is working toward her PhD at INRA, in Nouzilly, France, established an observation system for 187 horses housed in individual box stalls in four barns. All horses were Warmblood sport horses used for dressage, show jumping, or eventing and had been housed in box stalls since about the age of 3. One researcher, a trained observer, walked through the barn aisleways observing the horses on 50 days over a nine-month period and recorded what she saw.
Mostly, she looked for four distinct behavioral signs of poor welfare: stereotypies (crib-biting, wind-sucking, and weaving, primarily), aggression toward humans (biting and threats), a “depressed state” bodily posture (neck and back at about the same level, with low ears and poor response to any kind of stimulus), and stress-related behaviors such as “acting nervous” with a high neck and excessive alertness or frequent defecation.
The researchers compared the presence of these signs with enrichment efforts such as providing straw bedding instead of shavings (allowing the horses to “munch” on bedding that also served as forage), having a window to the outside, having access to another horse through bars between the stalls, and having various kinds of commercial equine toys available in the stall.
The Findings: Signs of Poor Welfare
The team found that, for the most part, enrichment had little effect on signs of poor welfare, said Lansade. “Our results with these horses showed that these little ‘improvements’ we do in stalls just aren’t sufficient,” she said. “Removing some window bars, adding an extra meal of concentrated feed—these don’t really serve much purpose, and it’s time to get back to good common sense.”
What they did note, however, was the effect of time: The older the horses were, the more signs of poor welfare they showed, Lansade said. Because these sport horses had all essentially entered the sport world with individual box housing as 3-year-olds, age represented years spent in isolation. Over time, the horses’ welfare worsened, their study results revealed.
“The horse, which has lived in open spaces for the last several millennia with unrestricted access to forage and especially while establishing strong and complex social relationships with other horses, just isn’t made for living alone, isolated in a box, regardless of how well-set-up it is,” Lansade said.