Avoiding Hazardous Horseplay

Swiss researchers have released new data on risk factors and prevention measures for some of the greatest dangers to horses: other horses.

Anyone who has spent time on a farm with more than one horse could tell you that bites and kicks are some of the most common causes of accidents and injuries around the farm.

"Grouping and regrouping without adequate space for the submissive animals to demonstrate submission by moving away can cause what would normally be a noncontact threat to accelerate to contact," said Sue McDonnell, MS, PhD, Certified AAB, the founder and head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine, who commented on the study.

However, until now, this common-sense information had never been confirmed by any population-based scientific data.

Researchers for the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office compiled information on 2,912 horses from randomly selected owners throughout Switzerland and found that of 897 disorders diagnosed or analyzed by veterinarians in the past year, 231 horses had suffered injuries, and 50 of those injuries were caused by bites and kicks. This last number corresponds to 25.8% of injuries, and 5.6% of all diseases and disorders.

Further data indicated changes in housing or herd dynamics increased the risk of kick or bite injuries compared to other injuries, and Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians are four times more likely to suffer such injuries than other breeds commonly found in Switzerland.

However, the data also showed that the type of housing (individually stalled or in pastured groups) and the use of the horse (competition or pleasure) did not influence the incidence of bite and kick injuries.

Study authors recommend taking measures to create and maintain a stable group hierarchy as carefully as possible, especially when dealing with more high-spirited breeds. New horses should be gradually and cautiously introduced into an established group, and boarding stables and sale barns might want to avoid group housing entirely; horses come and go frequently in these environments, making a stable hierarchy almost impossible to maintain.

"Walk a new horse along a safe fenceline and observe his interactions with the rest of the herd," McDonnell suggests. "Once they are 'buddying up' along the fence line it is likely more safe to open the gate to let them commingle in a large enclosure (between one and two acres per horse), with no narrow alleys or other constructions where an animal could be trapped."

Researchers also suggest that large turnout areas with individual feeding spaces might help prevent bite and kick injuries.

The study, "Bite and kick injuries in horses: Prevalence, risk factors and prevention," appeared in the May 2008 edition of the Equine Veterinary Journal.

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