An Italian study has shown that how a horse is stabled affects its chances of becoming a cribber or weaver ‒ not that the results will surprise most horse owners and stable managers.
According the study, horses that were in an individual stall with no access to the outside or other horses had the highest occurrence of cribbing and weaving among their test group. Conversely, horses that lived in a herd outside with free access to grazing had the fewest cribbers and weavers.
In the study conducted by the University of Parma study, 117 horses representing 22 different breeds were divided into four separate living conditions in order to assess the “stereotypies,” defined as repetitive behaviors with no apparent goal or function. The study found in the first test group, consisting of 27 horses which were stabled individually without outside access and without contact with other horses, there were 11 animals displaying such traits.
The second test group was 30 horses stabled individually with the “possibility of partial contact with other horses.” Of these only six displayed stereotypies.
The third group consisted of 30 horses in a herd with access to a large paddock. Of this group only five displayed stereotypies.
The fourth and final group was also 30 horses at pasture in groups of more than seven horses and plenty of green forage for the entire year. Of this final cohort only three animals displayed the stereotypies.
According to a write-up on the study, the main purpose of the research was to evaluate oxidative stress parameters in the horses in relation to their housing conditions, presence of stereotypies, age, sex and breed. Oxidative stress is defined as an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons.
Oxidative stress levels were evaluated through a series of tests on plasma and serum samples. The researchers explained that “oxidative stress plays an important role in the development of many horse diseases and it has been shown that housing has important implications for the psychophysical well-being of horses.” However, the researchers found no significant differences in the oxidant/antioxidant balance between the housing categories.
The authors of the study didn’t reach any conclusions, saying, “The analysis of oxidative stress parameters in relation to the presence or absence of stereotyped behaviors needs to be investigated further. No conclusive results have been reached at present.”
Perhaps the most relevant conclusion is obvious and what many of us already know: horses are herd animals and are happiest living with other horses with access to ample grazing.