Social housing reduces adverse social interactions in harness stallions – study

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A partition in a “social box”, where part of the partition between two adjacent boxes is replaced by strong vertical metal bars at 30 cm intervals. The two spaces allow the horses to come into direct tactile contact with each other Image: Agroscope, Swiss National Stud, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103773

Stallions housed in so-called social boxes had fewer unwanted social interactions when harnessed in pairs for carriage riding, new studies show.

Researchers, writing in the journal Animals, says allowing horses to have more social interaction in their stables can have positive consequences for their behavior during training.

“Previous studies have reported increased aggression between horses after social deprivation, particularly during mounted training sessions, which could be explained by social frustration and impaired social skills induced by limited social contacts between horses. horses,” wrote Annik Imogen Gmel and her fellow researchers at the Swiss National Stud.

The authors said negative social interactions are of particular concern for equestrian disciplines that use multiple horses simultaneously, such as driving.

In this equestrian discipline, couples are often chosen according to their affinity. “However, interactions between horses while driving can be dangerous for both horses and drivers, which is why horses are specially trained not to interact when hitched to a carriage in pairs.”

This is to ensure that the horses are paying attention to the directions of the handler and groom, and not to the other horse.

Indeed, the personal space shared by force could encourage horses to seek interactions, in order to settle conflicts between equines or to play, and to ignore human instructions, which could lead to accidents.

Despite their training, interactions between horses still occur.

The study team investigated whether housing stallions in social boxes alters their behavior when riding in a carriage.

They hypothesized that staying in social boxes would reduce the number of unwanted social interactions when driven in pairs.

Their work focused on eight Franches‐Montagnes breeding stallions, aged 4 to 14, belonging to the national stud farm.

Horses were normally housed in individual stalls on straw bedding and were fed hay and concentrate three times a day, with water available at all times. They exercised 5-6 times a week.

During their initial training at 3 years old, all the stallions were ridden and driven to pass the Franches‐Montagnes stallion approval test. However, after initial training, not all horses in the study were being driven regularly.

In the so-called “classic” boxes of the stud, the partition between the stalls consists of a lower part in solid wood 1.4 m high, while the upper part is made up of metal bars close together. This configuration allows the crossing of visual contact and smells, but strongly limits tactile contact.

In the so-called “social” box, the partition between two boxes consists of a portion with vertical metal bars starting from the ground over a height of 2.55 m, spaced 30 cm apart. These allow horses to pass their head, neck and legs through the adjacent box.

The rest of the bulkhead is solid, allowing horses to visually isolate themselves from the neighboring horse if they wish. Each stallion has direct contact with a single neighbor.

Each set of two consecutive social boxes is then separated from the next set of social boxes by an opaque partition.

In the experiment, the eight breeding stallions were observed when they were led in pairs with a “neutral” stallion housed in a conventional stall that limits physical contact.

They were driven on a standardized route over four different days before, during and after being housed in social boxes.

The type and frequency of behavior of the pairs and the interventions of the groom and the driver during the test drives were assessed live and using video recordings.

Analysis showed that adverse social interactions decreased during and after stallions were housed in the social box.

The stallions’ interactions also decreased over the four days, they noted, suggesting they became accustomed to the testing conditions by learning not to interact or by subtly adjusting dominance.

The social box tends to decrease undesirable social behaviors of pair driven stallions and could therefore be used as environmental enrichment for horses, they concluded.

“Another important factor in reducing unwanted social interactions of stallions during carriage riding appears to be the consistency of the driver and groom in their requests to teach the stallions that social interactions are undesirable when driven in pairs” , the authors noted.

“Other effects, such as habituation to test conditions and matching, could not be assessed here and represent a limitation of our study.”

The researchers said further studies should determine whether factors, such as affinity between harnessed horses, could influence the number of interactions, and whether horses staying together in social boxes would show even fewer interactions when they are driven together.

The study team noted that single stable housing has repeatedly been shown to be detrimental to horse welfare.

“This restrictive housing system provides low opportunities for horses to perform species-specific behaviors, i.e. social interactions and locomotor behavior, and causes animals to remain in a state of stress related to frustration.”

Impaired housing-related well-being can lead to undesirable traits, excessive aggression towards humans, insensitivity to their environment, and increased alert posture.

It could also negatively affect horse training.

The study team included Gmel, Anja Zollinger, Christa Wyss, Iris Bachmann and Sabrina Briefer Freymond.

Gmel, AI; Zollinger, A.; Wyss, C.; Bachmann, I.; Briefer Freymond, S. Social Box: Influence of a new housing system on the social interactions of stallions when driven in pairs. Animals 2022, 12, 1077. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12091077

The study, published under a Creative Commons Licensecan be read here.

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