In this video, Certified Horse Behavior Consultant Lindsy Murray promotes the concept of group living for equines. This is Lindsy’s herd of horses that have lived together for over 20 years. The majority of the horses and ponies were taken on as rescues in need of care and rehabilitation. Providing an environment where horses can form strong bonds and fulfill the ultimate equine priority of feeling safe has been a predominant factor in restoring their overall wellbeing.
Why promote group living?
Horses are prey animals, and group living has always been an effective strategy for survival. In the U.K., many horses are kept independently in separate paddocks and stabled or stalled for many hours a day. They can’t fulfill their essential needs—to be with companions, to move freely, and to forage and graze. Living a life that is devoid of these ethologically driven behaviours can lead to stress-related behaviour problems including hypervigilance, aggression, and conditioned suppression.
Group living allows for many of these essential needs to be met. From a welfare point of view, this means we can meet the requirements of Bramble’s Five Freedoms, which correspond to five aspects of animal welfare under human control.
The five freedoms as currently expressed are:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintainfull health and vigour.
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelterand a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, properfacilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoidmental suffering.
Careful planning and management
Of course, changing to group living does take time. Horses that have been poorly socialised or have had fearful experiences may initially struggle to cope if they aren’t introduced slowly and into the right group. Planning, safety measures, and careful management are all essential. It is advisable to contact a qualified horse behaviour consultant for help and advice if you are concerned in any way about introducing your horse to a new herd.
Living freely within a herd doesn’t mean that horses become feral and difficult to handle. You will see from the video that the yard area is a central point that the horses and ponies orient towards for extra food, water, and shelter. All the horses are handled here regularly and have been taught through positive associations that short periods of time in a confined area or being handled for various procedures is not something to be anxious about. In fact, a stable enriched with a variety of succulent grasses, herbs, vegetables, or even hay in the winter months is quite a sought-after resource.
Making positive changes
A horse’s life can be improved, and behaviour problems can be greatly reduced, if not eliminated, by making positive changes to the horse’s 24-hour day. Stress-related problems can’t be solved by training alone: focusing on overall wellbeing is key. Small changes, for example, longer turnout periods, stable enrichment, and allowing horses to have companions, even for a limited time, can all help towards improving a horse’s welfare. Group living, however, should be a goal all horse owners work towards. It is what horses have evolved to do for millions of years. Should we be taking such an essential aspect of their life away from them?
Lindsy Murray is an IAABC certified horse and dog behaviour consultant, and an ABTC accredited horse and dog behaviourist. She is based in Cheshire, U.K.