Researchers at the University of Tours, France have investigated the effect of environmental enrichment on welfare and interactions with human handlers.
In the life of a domestic horse, social isolation, confinement and unvaried food are commonplace. These conditions can induce welfare and behavioral issues. Researchers at the University of Tours, France tested whether an enrichment protocol could a) improve welfare, b) have an impact on fearfulness and c) on human relationships.
Nineteen 10-month old Welsh ponies were split into two groups: 9 lived in a standard environment and 10 in an enriched environment, each for five weeks. In the standard environment, horses lived in individual stables with wood shaving bedding. They were fed concentrated pellets and were left outside in individual paddocks thrice per week. In the enriched environment, horses lived in individual stables with straw bedding during the day and by groups on a pasture during the night. Enrichment consisted in fractionating and delivering varied food all day long, offering social contacts, large stables and sensory stimulations (e.g., music, objects). The behavior of the horses was recorded in the stable.
The research team found many indications of welfare improvement in enriched conditions from the 1st to the 5th week. On the 5th week, enriched horses expressed less aberrant behavior, alert postures, ears pointed backwards and more lateral sleeping posture. At the end of the five weeks, temperament tests showed that enriched yearlings were less fearful and closer to humans (e.g., glances at an unknown object, latency to return eating after a sudden event, sniffing and nibbling a passive human). Enriched horses also expressed less defensive behavior towards humans during manipulation (e.g., escape, biting, head-butt).
Such an enrichment program could be recommended in breeding to improve welfare, horse-human relationships, and decrease fearfulness.
Valenchon, M., Lévy, F., Neveux, C., & Lansade, L. (2012). Horses under an enrichment program showed better welfare, stronger relationships with humans and less fear. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7(6), e16.