Most of us realise that keeping horses in individual stables, isolated from other equines, is stressful and can lead to stereotypical behaviour (so-called stable vices) such as weaving, box-walking, crib-biting and wind-sucking. Essentially, this is because horses are herd animals.
French vets have studied whether different stable designs on a yard with a large population of warmbloods had an effect on their behaviour while kept inside. They studied 32 geldings on an elite dressage yard. All of the horses were fed, bedded down and trained in the same way, but there were two types of stable.
One design had only a small grille between each stable, so that the occupant could interact with only one other, but it did have a half-door to the outside world so the horse was able to put his head out and watch other horses.The other type of stable, which was the same size, had no outside window or door. But it did have upper grilles all around, so that the horse could get nose-to-nose with his neighbours and see at least five equine friends nearby.The vets observed the horses for evidence of stress or relaxation, including the sounds the horses made. Gentle snorting and nickering indicate a more relaxed state, compared with whinnying or hard blowing.
The results showed that the horses kept in the stables with a small grille exhibited more alertness, vigilance and excitation than those in stables with grilles all around. Even though the top half of the door was open, these horses were less relaxed and whinnied more than the horses with no outside door.
In contrast, the horses in stables with all-round grilles were more relaxed, and nickered and snorted gently.
Some stereotypic behaviour was seen in both sets of horses, but was more severe in those housed in the boxes with an outside door and little contact with other horses. The study also revealed that changes in behaviour may be rapid after a change in housing.
Ref Horse & Hound; 14 November 2019