If a horse spends most of his time standing in the same position in his stall, would you say he's just bored? And what about a mare that threatens to bite when you approach her stall--is she vicious?
The latest behavior research coming out of the University of Rennes is saying no, those are not the only explanations. In fact, chances are that these actions are actually indicators that the horse is not doing as well as it should.
In a study of 59 horses in three equestrian centers, equine behavior scientist Carole Fureix, PhD, and her team sought to define specific criteria for evaluating well-being in the domestic horse. What they discovered was that certain posture positions and behavioral habits directly mirrored health problems, especially back pain, or abnormal blood parameters.
"For example, it turns out that the horses who aren't feeling well physically or mentally are more likely to spend the majority of their stall time in particular positions," Fureix said, adding that more precise descriptions of these positions will be released soon. "Researchers have already defined specific positions that reflect acute (immediate) stress, but it now appears that these can indicate chronic stress or pain as well."
Certain postures also appear to give insight into well-being, according to ongoing studies, she said. And investigations of laboratory testing of stress hormone levels and other parameters are still underway.
"The behavior and posture indicators we've discovered so far offer a reliable method to evaluate well-being," Fureix said. "If a high percentage of horses in the same equestrian center are positive for these indicators, that should signal an alert about the level of living conditions being offered to these animals."
Fureix and her team plan to expand their research to greater numbers of horses and equestrian centers, she said. Those results should lead to practical definitions and guidelines for evaluating equine well-being in the near future.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.