Horses Are Happier and Healthier When Living in Groups
To most horse people, there is no better sight than a row of freshly bedded stalls, complete with a pile of hay and a bucket brimming with clean water. To humans this looks safe and comfortable, but your horse might have a different opinion.
When left to exist in a natural state, horses typically live in herds consisting of a stallion, some yearlings, and a group of mares and foals. Young stallions will gather in bachelor herds where they will live together until they are able to join another herd. A group of horses will roam an area up to 30 square miles. As social animals, horses interact with one another by participating in mutual grooming and play. They nap and graze in close proximity, often building strong attachments to other horses in the herd. As a flight-or-fight animal, they find safety in numbers. A collective of eyes and ears are more likely to perceive danger, and hooves in multiples of four are more intimidating to predators. Horses feel a sense of security when surrounded by their companions.
It is no surprise that research done at Nottingham Trent University in the UK demonstrated that horses housed in individual box stalls exhibited higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone than horses living in groups. The more a horse was exposed to isolation, the more stress they exhibited and the more difficult they became to handle. Other researchers have shown that horses who live in isolation are more likely to develop symptoms of depression. It is universally accepted that the risk of developing gastric ulcers is much higher in horses that are confined to a stall; high stress levels are no doubt a contributing factor. The UK research showed that horses that lived in groups, even as small as two individuals, remained happier and healthier than horses that lived in isolation.
How isolation physiologically affected a horse helps to inform how we construct our stables and design our management strategies. A horse housed in an individual stall that allows for some level of visual, auditory and tactile interaction with a neighboring horse (e.g., panels of vertical metal bars on the front and sides of the stall and open doors or a half door) has lower stress levels than those who live in stalls that block interaction. Horses housed in pairs with full physical contact, and those that live in groups out in fields or paddocks, are able to participate in a full range of natural behaviors, which greatly reduce stress levels.
When it is necessary to house horses in individual stalls, stables and barns should be constructed to maximize the opportunity for equine interaction. Management strategies that allow a horse as much time turned out as possible with a buddy or buddies will also support decreased stress levels. For a horse that has to be confined due to illness, injury or because of a busy training or competition schedule, supporting a healthy digestive tract becomes critical to combat the effects of stress. Neigh-Lox Advanced can be provided to support a balanced digestive tract, lowering the risk of ulcers and other stress-related inflammation.
It goes without saying that a happy horse is going to perform better, stay sounder and be healthier than a stressed one. So take a moment to look at your barn through your horse’s eyes and do what you can to be sure there is plenty of quality time to be with companions!