If you’ve ever carted wheelbarrow loads of soiled bedding to the manure bin, you’ve probably wondered, at one time or another, if your horses really need all those shavings or straw in their stalls. Wonder no more: New research shows that bedding does matter, and so does the amount of bedding available. In fact, the greater the surface area of soft bedding (straw or shavings) available—that is, the size of the area that is bedded—the more time horses spend lying down.
Longer times spent lying down are important, as they allow horses to recover from stress and exercise, promoting better equine welfare, said Christina Rufener, a master's student at the Ethology and Animal Welfare Unit at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland. She presented her findings at the 10th Annual Swiss Equine Research Day, held in April in Avenches.
Rufener and colleagues assessed 38 horses divided into eight groups, each of which lived in group housing (a group stall, plus access to an outdoor run with firm footing) and were tested in four different bedding scenarios based on Swiss welfare requirements. The law requires that horses be offered a minimum surface area of bedding—straw or shavings—as a function of their body height. For example, a 17-hand (170 cm) horse in a group housing situation should have at least 75 ft² (7.5 m²) of “resting area.” (That’s roughly an 8.6-by-8.6-foot bedded area, though not necessarily in a perfect square, required for each horse.) Essentially, the larger the horse, the larger his resting area must be.
Within the resting area in the study, the depth of the bedding “was always sufficient (more than 10 centimeters, nearly 4 inches)," said study co-author Joan-Bryce Burla, PhD, of the Ethology and Animal Welfare Unit at ETH Zurich, study co-author. "But (bedding depth) was not part of our research question, (so) we can’t make any statements about it," she said. "We solely tested for the effect of the available space allowance/dimensions (in meters squared) of the (bedded) area.”
Rufener’s study conditions tested percentages of the minimum bedding required (or MBR) by the Swiss equine welfare laws—again, the resting area—as follows:
150% of the surface area required per horse;
100% of the surface area required per horse;
50% of the surface area required per horse; and
Rubber mats with no straw or shavings.
The greatest incidences of lying behavior (the frequency of lying bouts and length of time lying down) in all horses occurred in the bedding condition covering the most ground—150% of the surface area required, Rufener said.
They also found that regardless of the bedded dimensions, low-ranking horses spent more time lying down in areas with fewer or no shavings than high-ranking horses, she added. But in the 150% MBR conditions, higher-ranking horses less frequently “required” lower-ranking horses to get up and liberate the bedding area before they were ready, compared to 100% and 50% MBR. This is important, as higher-ranking horses often prevent lower-ranking horses from getting the rest they need in group scenarios, she said.
Without the bedding, however, the horses rarely lie down, Rufener relayed. Providing comfortable bedding is, therefore, critical to equine welfare, she said.
“Our study showed that horses prefer lying down on bedding and that hard rubber mats (alone) are not an adequate support surface for them,” Rufener said.
“The minimum statutory bedding requirements (in Switzerland) seem to be adequate, but there are large differences among individuals,” she added. “Including social parameters in our study revealed that optimizing the bedding areas … can help improve the welfare for the lower-ranking horses, as well.” In other words, the more bedded area you supply, the more likely the horses lower in the pecking order will lie down.
Further research is needed to determine how individually kept horses respond to different bedded surface areas.
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