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Exploring aggression regulation in managed groups of horses Equus caballus

By Carole Fureix, Marie Bourjade, Séverine Henry, Carol Sankey, Martine Hausberger

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Horses are highly social animals that have evolved to live in social groups. However, in modern husbandry systems, single housing prevails where horses experience social isolation, a challenge-to-welfare factor. One major reason for this single housing is the owners’ concerns that horses may injure each other during aggressive encounters. However, in natural conditions, serious injuries due to aggressive encounters are rare. What could therefore explain the claimed risks of group living for domestic horses? Basing our questioning on the current knowledge of the social life of horses in natural conditions, we review different practices that may lead to higher levels of aggression in horses and propose practical solutions. Observations of natural and feral horses mostly indicate a predominance of low frequencies and mild forms of aggression, based on subtle communication signals and ritualized displays and made possible by group stability (i.e. stable composition), dominance hierarchy and learning of appropriate social skills by young horses. Obviously, adults play a major role here in canalizing undesirable behaviours, and social experience during development, associated with a diversity of social partners, seems to be a prerequisite for the young horse to become socially skilled. Given the natural propensity of horses to have a regulation of aggression in groups, the tendency to display more aggression in groups of domestic horses under some management practices seems clearly related to the conditions offered. We therefore review the managing practices that could trigger aggressiveness in horses. Non social practices (space, resource availability) and social practices (group size, stability of membership, composition and opportunities for social experiences during development) in groups of domestic horses are discussed here. Finally, we propose simple practical solutions leading to more peaceful interactions in groups of domestic horses, based on the knowledge of horses’ natural social life which therefore should be enhanced (e.g. ensuring roughage availability, favouring group stability, introducing socially experienced adults in groups of young horses, etc.). The state of the art indicates that many questions still need to be answered. Given the importance of the associated welfare issues and the consequences on the use of horses, further research is required, which could benefit horses… and humans.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 138
Issue 3
Pages 216-228
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.009
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Aggression
  2. Coping
  3. Horses
  4. Management
  5. Social behavior
  6. social development