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Managing Horse Herds for Maximizing WelfareBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · September 25, 2017

If we all had acres of land, then the dilemma of how and when to turn horses out might be less of an issue. For many of us, limited pasture causes concern when providing turnout.

“There are definitely pros and cons associated with turning out horses. The cons seem to materialize when groups of horses continually change and questions of dominance occur,” acknowledged Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., longtime nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Many owners minimize turnout either alone or with other horses due to fear of injury, necessitating time off from competition and unexpected veterinary expenditures. Unfortunately, this leaves many horses deprived of physical contact with other horses despite the fact that researchers suggest that availability to space, access to grass, and social contacts are important for equine welfare.

Other detriments to stabling horses individually include the following:

  • Singly housed horses are more aggressive toward their trainers than group-housed horses;
  • Singly stabled horses nibble, paw, and kick more often than horses housed in pairs or groups;
  • Stereotypic behaviors, including crib-biting, weaving, box-walking, and windsucking, occur more frequently in singly stabled horses, and;
  • Housing impacts a horse’s learning ability in that group-housed horses need less time to learn than do singly housed horses.

One recent study* on the impact of turnout on horse interactions relayed that injuries sustained during turnout are actually quite rare. The researchers shared data showing that less than 1% of horses became lame as a consequence of being kicked by another horse, and that even semiferal and feral horses only uncommonly sustain serious injury inflicted by other individuals in their herd.

Further, the researchers wrote, “One of the best ways of preventing or reducing stereotypies is increasing access to pasture or paddocks and facilitating social contact with conspecifics” (other horses).

“The research team also cautioned that competition among horses housed together for food can occur, necessitating careful planning of how to feed each particular group based on herd dynamics,” shared Crandell.

She added, “Monitoring each horse’s body condition score, ensuring each horse receives a balanced diet, providing appropriate room to minimize competition even for lying down, and shelter from the elements all must occur for successful pasturing.”

In terms of maximizing learning and trainability, Crandell recommends supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. KER’s EO•3 is a potent marine-derived oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids that is top-dressed onto a horse’s feed.

*Majecka, K., and A. Klawe. Influence of paddock size on social relationships in domestic horses. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. In press.