Research Shows Exercised Horses Have Fewer Unwanted Behaviors

Providing a stabled horse with one hour of exercise daily has beneficial effects on horse welfare, as well as handler safety, according to a new study.

"Providing horses with a daily exercise regime, as well as regular positive interactions with other horses and people, is likely to improve their welfare and make them safer to handle," said Raf Freire, PhD, of Charles Sturt University in Australia.

Horses are social animals, he explained. Many social animals in captivity respond badly to small enclosures and social isolation. Because misbehavior in horses can lead to human injury, the researchers wanted to know if stabled horses experience similar welfare issues as other confined animals.

If so, could owners modify unwanted behaviors, which include rearing, backing, snorting, biting, and head tossing?

"Unwanted behavior is a leading factor in horse-related injuries and deaths in adults and children," Freire said. "So understanding what leads horses to 'misbehave' is critical to reducing the high levels of horse-related injuries and accidents."

The researchers tested 24 Thoroughbreds and stock horses to see their response to one of four exercise routines: walking, using a treadmill, riding, and turnout in a paddock.

To assess responses to handling and stable housing, they recorded horse behavior during loading and unloading onto a horse trailer and when the horses were released into a large arena after their exercise.

"We found that the exercise significantly reduced the amount of unwanted behavior and the number of commands given by a handler," said Freire.

"Daily turnout had a similar effect as other exercise treatments," Freire added, "showing that the amount of exercise, per se, that horses receive is not the critical factor. Instead, the ability of horses to show free-movement--gallop, buck, roll, and interact with other horses--are probably the most important factors for horses well-being."

Providing horses with daily exercise and interactions should make them easier to train.

The study, "Effects of different forms of exercise on post inhibitory rebound and unwanted behavior in stabled horses" was published in the May 2009 Equine Veterinary Journal.

The abstract is available on PubMed. 

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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