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Influence of housing on weanling horse behaviour and subsequent welfare

By C. R. Heleski, A. C. Shelle, B. D. Nielsen, A. J. Zanella

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Weaning foals marks a stressful event in horses' lives. Limited research exists regarding different housing methods post-weaning and the long-term implications on horse behaviour and welfare. The purpose of this study was to monitor behaviour and physiological stress markers in horses weaned individually in solid partition box stalls versus horses weaned in small groups and housed in paddocks. Both treatment groups underwent maternal deprivation stress, but the stalled weanlings had the additive effects of social isolation which prevented them from performing social behaviours. Quarter Horse weanlings from the Michigan State University, Merillat Equine Centre, Michigan, USA average age 4.5 months, were weaned in 13.4 m2 box stalls (n=6) or in groups of three in a 992 m2 paddock, which had very limited grazing forage and an open shelter available (n=6). Subjects were fed concentrate and hay to National Research Council recommendations. A time budget for 31 observed behaviours was developed. Behavioural observations were made 2 days per week, approximately 6 h per day, for the duration of the 56 days study. Instantaneous samples were recorded every 5 min on each observation day, with equal division between the two treatment groups (n=35 scans per horse per observation day). Focal data were recorded continuously between scans to provide a more detailed ethogram. On each observation day, faecal samples were collected to measure 11,17-dioxoandrostanes, an indicator of glucocorticoid metabolite concentration. Regarding the faecal 11,17-dioxoandrostanes, there was no discernible treatment difference either immediately post-weaning or at the conclusion of the 56 days study. Interestingly, all 12 weanlings showed a 4 week post-weaning increase in 11,17-dioxoandrostanes. The reason for this peak was unclear. Behavioural observations demonstrated a significantly different time budget in paddock-housed weanlings than in stall-housed weanlings (P<0.0001). Paddock-housed weanlings displayed a time budget more like a feral horse time budget, showing more time spent moving and less time spent lying. Paddock-housed weanlings, who had the option of selectively engaging in a broader range of behaviours, showed strong motivation to graze and be near conspecifics. Stalled weanlings spent significantly more time engaged in aberrant behaviours licking or chewing the stall/shed wall, kicking at the stall/shed wall, pawing, and bucking/rearing bouts (P<0.03). Based on the variety of behaviours shown, the ability to engage in strongly preferred behaviours, and freedom from aberrant behaviour, we conclude that the paddock-reared, group-housed weanlings had better welfare. However, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the stalled weanlings had poor welfare.

Date 2002
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 78
Issue 2/4
Pages 291-302
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/S0168-1591(02)00108-9
Language English
Author Address Animal Science Department, Michigan State University, Anthony Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal housing
  3. Animal physiology
  4. Animal rights
  5. Animal welfare
  6. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  7. Blood
  8. Developed countries
  9. Foals
  10. Glucocorticoids
  11. Horses
  12. Mammals
  13. Michigan
  14. North America
  15. OECD countries
  16. peer-reviewed
  17. Stress
  18. Stress response
  19. United States of America
  20. weaning
  1. peer-reviewed