Studies Track Horses' Movement Patterns

Where the wild horses roam free, daily hoof tracks can be followed for miles. Now thanks to new, lightweight GPS technology, Australian researchers are no longer following tracks but recording satellite signals from various wild horse herds as well as domestic horses. Their studies suggest that through domestication and stabling, horses have taken on movement patterns that might be negatively affecting their well-being.

GPS-equipped collars, weighing 1.5-pounds each, were fitted onto the horses and worn for study periods lasting 6.5 days, according to Brian Hampson, postgraduate PhD scholar at the School of Veterinary Sciences of the University of Queensland and primary author of two recently published studies on the research. Wild horses were immobilized for 15 minutes using humane darts to put the collars on and take them off later. The animals were tracked every five seconds, allowing the researchers to create detailed maps and calculate precise information on the horses' movement patterns.

Their results showed that horses are naturally good travelers, covering average distances of around 10.6 miles per day in the wild. They would even get as far as 5 miles away from a watering source--or 34 miles away for the wild desert horses. These horses would frequently go up to four days without water and walk 12 hours nonstop to their watering point. However, Hampson cautioned that desert horses have probably genetically adapted to dry conditions over the past 140 years. Even so, other wild horses in the study living in rich grazing areas would go from one to three days without water, he said.

Meanwhile, domestic horses at pasture averaged only about four miles of movement every day, regardless of the size or structure of the pasture. Even in pastures as large as 39.5 acres with relatively few horses, the maximum daily average was only 4.5 miles. Movement was significantly less for stalled horses given turnout time in a yard, Hampson said. They averaged only about 0.6 miles of free daily movement.

"Domestically kept horses generally move very little in comparison to the horse in nature," Hampson said. "This lack of movement can cause and contribute to poor quality foot health and serious systemic disease."

And, he said: "Many ailments of the horse can be managed by allowing or causing the horse to exercise. We should be aiming for similar activity levels for the horses in our care."

In keeping with this goal, Hampson and his colleagues also tested five pasture structures to see if they tended to encourage more movement in horses--a thought that has been gaining popularity among some horse owners. The "racetrack" style fencing system, which blocks off the center area of the pasture, made no major difference in movement and actually seemed to make the horses move less, Hampson said. A maze pattern also slightly reduced average movement, and a spiral fence pattern lowered the average even more. Fencing off a tree to keep horses from stagnating in the shade seemed to cause little changes in their movement habits.

In fact, the pasture structure which yielded the greatest daily travel distance was the basic open pasture system of four fenced-off sides, he said.

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.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners