When horses live in certain open stable systems with functional areas and pasture access, they walk and run distances that are close to, or even the same as, those covered by many free-roaming equids.
According to German researchers, domestic horses move an average of 8.43 kilometres per day when housed on a Hinrichs Innovation + Technik (HIT) Active Stable system, which includes multiple feeding, watering, and resting stations spread out between different paddocks and pastures.
That’s less than the 16 kilometres and 28 kilometres tracked in Australian brumby studies, but it’s comparable to the 9 kilometres covered by mustang mares in the U.S. and the 8.5 kilometres travelled by donkeys in Mongolia.
And it’s even better than the 6.5 kilometres that Polish koniks walk in the forest (only 2.6 on meadows) and the 3.5 kilometres that Przewalskis traverse in the steppes.
“A well conceptualized, well-planned stable with different functional areas can motivate horses to move,” said Irena Czycholl, PhD, of the Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel Institute of Animal Breeding and Husbandry, in Germany.
Czycholl and her fellow researchers equipped 51 horses of different ages, breeds, and sexes with GPS collars over a nine-month period. They lived in a single HIT active stable with automatic feeding stations activated by microchip reading or collar sensors, separated from watering areas, resting areas, and grazing pastures in a design that encourages movement.
“HIT active stables are conceptualised in a way that motivates the horses to more movement,” she explained. “Hence, a feeding station releases the horse into another functional area, so it has to walk to the resting area, for example, and then again to the feeding station, and then to the waterer, and so on.”
The idea is to have “a lot of slow movement,” according to Czycholl. “It’s sort of like in office jobs where advice is given to place the bin a few steps away from the desk or the printer, for example, so that workers have to stand up and walk a few steps instead of just sitting in their office chairs all day.”
Their study revealed that in warmer seasons when the horses could go to pasture, the horses moved 9.4 kilometres per day on average. In winter, when they had to share a one-hectare sand paddock without access to pasture, they averaged 6.4 kilometres per day.
But there were lots of individual differences, mainly related to breed and age, Czycholl said. For example, an 11-year-old Friesian covered more than twice as much distance as an 18-year-old Fjord. Generally, horses moved about 0.1 kilometres/day less for every year older they were, she said.
Horses also varied significantly from day to day, she added. In some cases, some horses covered 20 kilometres in a single 24-hour period. Critically, it’s worth noting that the stable design provided the opportunity to move, for those horses who really wanted to move, she said.
Pasture time encouraged more movement because the horses had to cover certain distances just to access the pasture gate, she said. And once they were in the pastures, they moved slowly for hours while grazing, and sometimes they took off galloping as a herd, especially when spurred by unexpected sights and sounds.
“More high-speed movement occurred on larger pastures especially by young, playful geldings, and the larger the pasture, the higher the chance that other members of the herd joined in,” Czycholl told Horses and People. “Moreover, the horses were more spread out when the pasture was larger. The main reason [they moved more in our study], however, was probably due to a relatively warm summer with relatively little grass available due to heat stress in the plants. Hence, the horses probably explored the area to find good spots during their grazing behaviour.”
Even so, the active stable design appears to encourage even more movement than pasture alone, she said. And it’s certainly far better than keeping horses in stalls, where average daily movement is only 0.2 kilometres according to previous studies. And horses in open stables without “functional areas” averaged about 2 kilometres of movement per day in earlier studies.
“Compared to other husbandry systems, this is quite a good achievement,” Czycholl said.
Even so, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a study of these particular horses in this particular stable. While the theory is promising, it’s not necessarily the reality in different stables. “In practical conditions, this may work better or not as well, depending on the real conditions in each specific stable,” she said.
Still, it’s an important beginning to what is hopefully a long series of studies on how horses behave in different housing systems, according to Czycholl.
“To really understand the behaviour of the horses in these stable systems and to analyse the exact effects of certain management interventions on the welfare of the horses, more studies in other stables are needed,” she said.
“Besides the behaviour of the horses and the travelled distances that we analysed in this study (which is, in fact, part of a larger study), other study questions were: what is the social structure within the large group?” she continued.
“Most [natural] herds are rather small, such as three to four mares and one stallion. So one of our research questions was: what happens in such a large group of horses? Are there different, individual groups living next to each other? Is it one large group?”
Her team also hopes to determine whether GPS data can reveal more precise details about the horses’ movement, Czycholl said. “In cows, a research group recently succeeded in distinguishing the movement patterns from grazing behaviour to walking behaviour, but in horses, this is not so easy,” she said. “This may be due to the accuracy of the sensors we used but also to the different grazing behaviour of the different species.”
The article by Frederik Hildebrandt, Joachim Krieter, Kathrin Büttner, Jennifer Salau, Irena Czycholl, Distances Walked by Long Established and Newcomer Horses in an Open Stable System in Northern Germany, is published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science and can be found here.