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Equine Science Sunday: It's Me, Management, I'm The Problem

Did you know that while aggressive encounters between wild horses are rare, domestic horses tend to display more aggression than their natural counterparts?


In fact, in the wild, oftentimes agnostic encounters do not even lead to a fight - so why is it increasingly common for horses to get injured in group turnout? A group of French researchers looked at existing data for some answers, and came to the startling conclusion: it's me, management, hi, I'm the problem, it's me - human-imposed management practices contribute to the issues that are seen in domestic horses.


When we're caring for and managing highly social animals, it's important to consider the effect that our care and management have on their behaviour and well-being.





Human management practices that increase horse aggression, and thus, risk of injury to other horses, include:

  • Social deprivation.

  • Unstable social groups.

  • Resource guarding.

  • Available space.

As with other animal species, being able to behave appropriately in social settings depends on learning social skills from other horses. Lack of social experience can result in the horse not learning how to have the appropriate social skills to exist peacefully in a group setting, and as a result, may act aggressively out of insecurity.


While wild horse populations have low frequencies of aggression, changes in their group composition by human interference have been shown to increase aggression temporarily. Some boarding barns may have new horses introduced to the herd often, which can increase stress in the existing group as well.


Resource guarding is another contributor to aggression in domestic horses. Limited access - or perceived limited access - to a resource creates social competition and increases aggressive behaviours.


Aggression is reported to be increased in domestic horses who are kept in smaller paddocks compared to when housed in larger pastures. Perceived invasion of personal space is a source of aggression, and horses in smaller spaces may make it more difficult for horses to maintain their personal space, as well as offering less room for horses to avoid or get away from another horse.





Meanwhile, low levels of injuries are reported in domestic horses who are kept in semi-natural conditions. These conditions are defined by the authors as:

  • Kept in stable social groups.

  • Kept in appropriately spacious fields.

  • Appropriate foraging and water opportunities.


Under natural conditions, horses have a tendency to associate in stable groups. Group stability may help the horses learn and understand how to interact with each other horse, forming a stable and predictable dynamic.


While smaller enclosures increase aggressive behaviours, larger spaces reduce them. When housed in larger spaces and lower group density, horses can avoid conflicts through spatial distribution.


Providing sufficient foraging and water opportunities not only helps to avoid resource guarding, but can also increase positive social interactions as well. Social groups who have several feeding stations show more allogrooming and more stable social relationships.


Overall, this review paper suggests that management practices seem to make all the difference, and offers an optimistic view on domestic horse management. By optimizing management to minimize animal stress and insecurity, aggressive behaviours can be reduced in domestic horses, leading to happier horses and humans!


 


Reference


Furiex, C., Bourjade, M., Henry, S., Sankey, C., Hausberger, M. 2012. Exploring aggression regulation in managed groups of horses Equus caballus. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 138(2012): 216-228.

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