How important is shelter for horses kept outdoors?

How important is shelter for horses kept outdoors?
27 Oct 2015

We all know shelter is a welfare requirement for animals. But what kind of shelter do horses need? Do horses prefer natural shelter or artificial shelter? What percentage of their time do horses actually spend using shelter?

Researchers in Belgium observed 426 horses in 166 pastures in Belgium and their use of shelter, both natural and man-made. Ambient temperature, wind speed, precipitation, humidity and radiant temperature were measured both inside and outside the shelter. Measurements were taken instantaneously at 15-second intervals over a 15 minute period.

The researchers found that the use of shelter increased significantly when the temperature outside the shelter was hotter or colder than the horse’s thermoneutral zone. The thermoneutral zone is the temperature in which horses have to expend minimum energy to maintain their body temperature and has previously been found to be 5-25 degrees celsius. Horses used shelter 71% of the time in cold weather outside their thermoneutral zone and 72.5% of the time in hot weather outside their themoneutral zone.

Horses showed a preference for artificial shelter over natural shelter, using artificial shelters 26% more and hardly using natural shelter at all in cold conditions. Artifical shelter was defined as a man-made shelter, often being made out of wood, iron or stone. Natural shelter was defined as trees and shrubs that provided natural protection and shade, including trees that sat outside the fenceline but still offered a windbreak or shade onto the paddock. Horses also seemed to use shelter more when there was lots of insects about, suggesting shelter helps horses cope with insects. Previous studies have found that insect numbers tend to be more prominent in the sun.

Interestingly, horses did not show increased shelter use with wind alone, but only when it was windy and rainy. Rain alone did correlate with a significant increase in shelter use compared to no rain.

Finally, horses still used shelter 48% of the total observation time, including times when the outside air temperature was within their thermo neutral zone.

Access to decent shelter is important for horses in a temperate climate. More research could be done into what materials are best for constructing a shelter.

Reference
Snoeks, M. G., Moons, C. P., Ödberg, F. O., Aviron, M., & Geers, R. (2015). Behavior of horses on pasture in relation to weather and shelter—A field study in a temperate climate. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

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