Welfare of Wild Horses during Training Studied

Welfare of Wild Horses during Training Studied

Plow training begins abruptly with the young horse (left) being yoked to an older, experienced Konik stallion (right).

Photo: Witold Kedzierski, PhD

Taking a wild horse from his native lands and subjecting him to a training program sounds like a stressful experience for the horse. But just how stressful is it? To find out, Polish researchers recently investigated how their country's wild horse training program was affecting the horses' welfare.

While the Polish program proved stressful for the young colts involved, the stress and physical effort still appeared to be within normal limits of young horses in training, said Witold Kedzierski, PhD, from the department of animal biochemistry and physiology at the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland.

Kedzierski and colleagues studied six 3- and 4-year-old Konik horses that had been captured in their native forest environment and started in training by the national training program. The program involves gathering and domesticating colts as 2 year olds and training them to pull light carts over the next 12 to 18 months. Once they are accustomed to light cart work, Kedzierski said, they are trained to pull a plow. Plow training begins abruptly with the young horse being yoked to an older, experienced Konik stallion. They plow for two and a half hours with five-minute breaks every 45 minutes.

Kedzierski studied stress levels and physical efforts of both the young horses and the stallions sharing their yokes on the first day of plow training to determine how the method affected their welfare.

On their first day on the yoke, the younger horses had significantly higher heart rates than the older horses before, during, and after training, which indicates increased stress, Kedzierski said. They also had much higher lactic acid levels in their blood, indicating greater physical effort. This was supported by the fact that the younger horses in training also produced significantly more sweat and they appeared to "fall one step behind" the older stallions after the first 15 minutes, he added.

Even so, compared to physical parameters of domestic draft horses in initial training obtained in previous studies, these young Konik horses had similar heart rate and lactic acid values, Kedzierski said.

"The study showed that the work in harnesses was relatively more intensive for young Konik colts than for the adult Konik stallions," he said. "Nonetheless, the intensity of their work effort did not exceed the physiological ability of young horses to do the work."

However, he added, more gradual training could be beneficial to the young horses, as it would help reduce their heart rate and lactic acid levels.

Similar studies in other countries with wild horses--such as the United States, the U.K., and Australia--could help determine how training programs affect the welfare of those particular breeds, said Kedzierski. But in general, longer, more gradual programs are more likely to protect the welfare of feral horses adjusting to domestic life.

The study, "The welfare of young polish Konik horses subjected to agricultural workload," appeared in January in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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