Individual vs group housing for horses

Individual vs group housing for horses
18 Mar 2015

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Trent explored the differences in stress levels and handling behaviour of horses in four different housing situations, ranging for isolated to group housing. The four different housing situations were: group housed full contact (a bare paddock), paired housing full contact (a big stable with two horses in it), single housing semi-contact (a stable with bars where the horse could see but not touch it’s neighbours) and single housing no contact (essentially solitary confinement with no sight or contact with any other horse). 16 horses were involved in the study and they spent eight hours a day for five consecutive days in each treatment. After each period of eight hours, the horses were then turned out in a paddock as per their housing group. Whilst turned out all horses had a view of other horses.

The solitary confinement treatment produced significantly higher cortisone levels in the horses (a sign of stress) and horses during this treatment were significantly more difficult to handle than the other housing methods. It is probably to be expected that solitary confinement causes stress, horses are herd animals and humans don’t like solitary confinement either, it has been used in human prison systems as a form of punishment for just about as long as prisons have existed.

These results should make us thing twice about situations where horses are potentially isolated for long periods of time: for instance on a float or trailer by themselves, or in old fashioned type stalls that do no allow the horse to see their neighbours unless they have their heads stuck out over the stall door. There was, however, no significant difference between the cortisone levels produced when horses were in the other housing treatments, including the stable with bars between neighbours.

Positive and negative social behaviour was also observed during the study. The paired housing treatment showed the highest level of negative social behaviour, suggesting that the horses took some time to establish a social hierarchy and it was not established in the five day period during which the horses were placed in each housing group.

In conclusion, this study suggests that stables where the horses can easily see their neighbours are better for animal welfare than stables where they cannot. It also seems surprising that there was not significant difference between stress levels in individual housing with bars, group housing and paired housing. There was a non-significant trend indicating that horses in group housing had the lowest stress levels of all. There are a lot of  variables in this study, including the fact that horses in group housing had more space per horse than other housing methods. It would be interesting to see further research in this area.