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Daily horse behavior patterns depend on management

Researchers at Southern Illinois University investigated how natural equine behavior patterns were affected by increasing amounts of time in confinement.

The study compared 24-hour behavior patterns of horses between several confined states and unconfined pasture. A 24-hour time budget was constructed for 35 different horses observed for 24 consecutive hours.

Horses were managed under four conditions:

  • Zero confinement (24P)
  • Daytime confinement/night turnout (12CD)
  • Daytime turnout/night confinement (12CN)
  • 24h/day confinement (24C).

The 24P group was considered the “control”. All horses had ad libitum access to roughage. Behavioral observations were made 10 times/h for 24h. Each 24h period was divided into 3h segments for analysis of time/treatment interactions. Behaviors were grouped into 5 categories representing >91% of all behaviors (ingestion, movement, inactivity, socialization, investigative) for statistical evaluation.

Findings are summarized as follows:

  • The 24P time budget consisted of 44.9% ingestion, 24.2% movement, 21% inactivity, 3.4% socializing and 3.0 investigative.
  • By comparison, the most frequent behavior of the 24C groups was inactivity (42.2%); ingestion (30.9%) and movement (11.3%) were all changed (P<0.01) compared to unconfined horses.
  • Ingestion was the most frequent behavior (36.6%) in 12h-confined horses, although lower (P<0.05) than in the 24P group.
  • Daytime confinement affected overall ingestion frequency, however other behaviors were not different between 24P and 12CD.
  • 12CN horses were inactive more frequently compared with 24P and 12CD groups.

Diurnal behavior patterns were also affected by both degree and time of confinement. 24P horses foraged throughout their day with no difference (P>0.05) in ingestion frequency between time periods. The highest frequency of ingestion occurred during 06:00-21:00h and was lowest at 03:00-06:00h in 24C horses. Ingestion was highly influenced by time of pasture access in partially confined horses; lowest ingestion was 18:00-06:00h in 12CN and 06:00-18:00h in 12CD. The greatest compensatory ingestion occurred in 12CN horses immediately following turnout (06:00 to 09:00h). 12CD night time ingestion patterns were not different (P>0.05) from 24P horses, although 12CD horses did not display the 24P pattern of ingestion decline at 03:00-06:00h.

Movement was higher at 15:00-24:00h in 24P compared with 24C. Movement frequency did not differ between 24P and 12CD, although inactivity was higher (P<0.05) in12CD; inactivity increasing at the expense of ingestion. 12CN horses displayed the greatest difference in movement and inactivity patterns compared to 24P, with lowest movement at 18:00-03:00h.

Confinement affects behavioral repertoire in horses, with increasing disruption as duration of confinement increases. Half-day confinement during daylight preserves a greater degree of unconfined repertoire compared with night time confinement. Movement and ingestion behaviors were the most disturbed under confinement. Disruption in these activities may be related to increased incidence of digestive disorders and stereotypies documented in confined horses.


S.S. King, K.L. Jones, M. Schwarm, E.L. Oberhaus. (2013) Daily horse behavior patterns depend on management.  Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.  Vol 33 (5), p365-366.