If you’re the owner of a senior horse, or a horse that is coping with chronic lameness issues, you may wonder what your horse does when you’re not around. Is your older horse feeding the birds and doing a crossword, followed by a nap and an early dinner? You might be surprised at how well your senior horse or horse with soundness issues is actually doing.

A new study published in June from a team of veterinarians and researchers in Austria showed that horses over the age of 20, as well as those with chronic orthopedic issues, generally spent their time the same as their healthy, younger cohorts.

How did they figure this out? The researchers set out to measure and compare how the horses spent their day, these “time budgets” measure the percentage of time spent on specific activities such as eating, playing, sleeping, and resting. To achieve their goal, the researchers used automated tracking devices on horses living in different farms and in different managed stables. In other words, some of the animals lived free range in a large paddock within a herd, 24/7, while others were kept in stalls overnight, with either limited turnout or all-day turnout.

There have not been a lot of concrete studies examining the time management of domesticated horses. And those that have looked at the issue usually compare these horses with their wild counterparts – something this study’s authors didn’t feel was appropriate given that feral horses range for great distances and spend the majority of their time grazing. Domesticated horses are kept in stalls and their eating is controlled by humans. It’s an apples-to-oats comparison.

“Given the disparity in environmental conditions, using wild activity budgets as the gold standard of welfare is flawed and fails to address the ambiguity of which behaviours are important for welfare and which are redundant in the context of a domestic horse,” the study authors wrote.

The researchers also noted that how we manage our horses by keeping them in stables, controlling their access to forage, socialization etc., may directly challenge their “instinctive and innate behaviour patterns” which may lead to diseases of the musculoskeletal system, digestive issues such as colic and behavioural problems like cribbing.

The study tracked 104 horses, comprised of 54 warmbloods, 16 draft horses and 34 horses of other breeds owned by an animal sanctuary. Of these horses, 51 were mares and 53 geldings, with an age range from 2 to 32 years, with an average age of about 20 years.

The horses were kept in local farms managed by equine sanctuary staff under similar conditions, but with three different management conditions and daily routines. The horses were either kept in individual box stalls, small group stalls (2-3 horses) or full pasture turnout with a run-in shed. All the horses had access to paddock turnout of between 3-24 hours depending on the weather. They all had free access to water and hay outside, and the indoor horses were fed hay in their stalls as well.

Figure 2. Time budgets for eating, resting, slow movement (“active”) and fast movement (“highly active”) by farm (left) and by turn-out condition (right) detailed by time of day.

The same vet recorded each horse’s body condition score (BCS) prior to each tracking period and the horses were split into study groups; horses younger than 20 but with chronic lameness; horses younger than 20 with chronic lameness; horses over the age of 20 with chronic lameness; horses over 20 that were sound; and the control group was younger sound horses.

Horses were then tracked twice over the course of a 9-month period, once in spring/summer and once in fall/winter, for 5–10 days each using the Hoofstep® automated equine monitoring system, which includes a GPS, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a radiotransmitter. The device was attached to the horses’ head by a halter designed for the purpose.

The device then breaks down equine behaviour into one of four areas; feeding, resting, active (walking) and highly active (trotting and cantering). There is a variable “activity count” that measures time between these activities.

The researchers found that the “overall mean time budgets at the equine sanctuary were divided into 42% eating, 39% resting, 11% active and 8% highly active.

According to the discussion section of the report, this 42% of their day spent eating fell “within the wide range of 10–64% measured in domestic horses but below the 50.82–66.6% reported for semi-feral horses.” The study also found that horses ate more often in the morning and afternoon, and less often during the night and early morning hours – which isn’t surprising given that the next big time spend was for resting. This 39% included inactivity and sleep, and was found to be higher than in free-ranging horses, whose range for rest periods is 12.9-29.3%, but was in the normal range for fellow domestic horses.

The Hoofstep® automated equine monitoring system. (hoofstep.com)

The stand-out finding for the researchers was that despite the senior age and soundness issues of the study group, the 19% time budget the horses allowed for movement and activity was on the high end of the range for domestic horses (between 4-19%) and higher than their free-ranging counterparts, which falls between 4-14%.

The big conclusion of the study was that the geriatric horses and horses suffering from chronic orthopaedic disease spent their time budgets in the same way as “the healthy control group and within the ranges observed in free-ranging conspecifics, demonstrating that being in appropriate living conditions age and/or orthopaedic disease does not significantly affect equine behaviour time budgets.”

The study’s authors hope that their work will inspire further study, and also provide knowledge that will lead to better animal welfare. “Welfare optimization strategies should be based on establishing and pursuing highly-motivated behaviours and corresponding time budgets that contribute to equine welfare and well-being in their specific environment rather than blindly pursuing wild-like behaviour as the gold standard,” the authors wrote in the paper. “We could demonstrate that geriatric horses and horses suffering from chronic orthopaedic disease can, under appropriate husbandry conditions, exhibit behaviour time budgets equivalent to healthy adult controls. While similar time budgets do not imply good welfare per se, they indicate an equal ability of the geriatric and chronically lame horses compared with the healthy control group to cope with their environment.”

The study conclusion further stated that this time budget analysis showed major differences between farms and turnout conditions, and that these differences could identify potential areas for improvement. “The more uniform temporal distribution of feeding and movement of horses living in open-air group housing, compared to horses living in more restricted husbandry systems, may indicate less stress and may provide an additional informative way of analyzing time-budget studies in the context of welfare assessment,” the authors concluded. “As a future perspective, outliers from the mean time budgets measured under specific husbandry conditions may help to identify individual horses that may be at risk of poor welfare and require additional qualitative assessment to infer their welfare status.”

So the next time you watch your horse relaxing in the paddock or playing with friends, rest assured that it’s living its best life, even if it is older.