Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Assessing welfare of horses owned by travellers and gypsies

The welfare of Traveller and Gypsy owned horses in UK and Ireland may be better than is sometimes thought, according to a recent study.


It has been suggested that horses owned by travellers and gypsies are particularly exposed to reduced welfare, with practices such as fly-grazing, tethering, abandonment of animals and indiscriminate breeding being seen as common. However, there has been little work to investigate the well-being of these animals.


Researchers at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, and the Roslin Institute, both at Easter Bush near Edinburgh, Scotland, conducted a study to identify the welfare status of Traveller- and Gypsy- owned horses and to determine the factors that are considered risks to horse welfare in this community. 


Marie Rowland and colleagues used a new approach, called ‘Qualitative Behaviour Assessment’ (QBA), to assess the horses’ behaviour and its affective state. A report of the work is published in Animals, as part of a special issue dedicated to equine welfare assessment.


They explain that Qualitative Behaviour Assessment is a “scientific approach used to measure the expressive quality of an animal’s behaviour and affective state. It is a ‘whole animal approach’ and is used to measure how the animal is expressing behaviour, often referred to as an animal’s ‘body language’. An animal’s mood or emotional state is communicated through its body language and is assessed using terms that describe their emotional repertoire. This is then applied to interpret an animal’s physical and psychological state.” 


The research team assessed horses at different locations throughout the UK and Ireland, including Appleby Horse Fair, (England), and Ballinasloe Horse Fair (Ireland). They also saw horses at British Horse Society (BHS) horse health clinics, and horse owners’ homes and yards.


To ensure a standardised procedure was used, all horses were assessed visually from 1.5 metres away.


The overall assessment indicated that horse health and welfare was of a good standard, with an optimal body condition score and the absence of skin conditions observed in most horses. Signs of poor hoof care were the most frequently reported welfare problem. Nearly a third of horses showed hoof changes such as hoof wall cracks and defects and long toes.


In conclusion, Rowland and colleagues write: ”This study is the first of its type to begin to quantify the welfare of Traveller and Gypsy owned horses. Although further research is required to ensure generalisability to all horses within this population, these results are a good starting point on which to engage with stakeholders who previously identified Traveller and Gypsy owned horses in the UK and Ireland to be particularly vulnerable to poor welfare.”



For more details, see:


The Welfare of Traveller and Gypsy Owned Horses in the UK and Ireland

Marie Rowland, Neil Hudson, Melanie Connor, Cathy Dwyer, and Tamsin Coombs. (2022)

Animals 12, no. 18: 2402. 


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Identifying pain behaviours in ridden horses

(c) Anke Van Wake. Dreamstime.com
“Bad” horse behaviour, frequently labelled as “resistant”, “lazy”, or even “explosive”, can be an indicator of pain, according to equine orthopaedics expert Dr Sue Dyson.

Through studies spanning three years, and over 400 horses, Dr. Sue Dyson and colleagues developed The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE), a tool to reliably identify signs of pain before the condition progresses to obvious lameness. 

 A short documentary, featuring Dr Dyson, challenges the way we look at reactive horses, and promotes the notion that a head nod is not the first sign of lameness. 

 “The 24 Behaviors of the Ridden Horse in Pain” follows Dr Dyson and Dr Jim Myers of Gold Coast Equine, as they examine and diagnose show jumper Lauren McMahon’s beloved mare Galina, who was not obviously lame, yet seemed increasingly unhappy under saddle. 

 Lauren had “tried everything” to figure out what was wrong, including ulcer treatments, multiple joint injections and specialized shoeing but Galina only became more resistant under saddle. 

 Galina’s story is not uncommon for horses that do not present with an obvious head bobbing lameness. Oftentimes these are horses that get labelled as “resistant,” “lazy,” and for horses that buck or rear from pain, “explosive.” Trainers often tell riders to “push them through it.” 

 The film shows horse lovers how to spot the early signs of pain while taking viewers on an emotional “ride” through the eyes of a young girl who loves her horse and will stop at nothing to try to figure out how to make her comfortable. 

 The full documentary will be available to watch freely from 30th September 2022. 

 For more details, see: 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Tracking donkey domestication

(c) Demidoff. Dreamstime.com
For thousands of years donkeys have played an important part in human progress. They have 
supplied power for farm work, and provided transport, proving particularly useful in semi-arid and otherwise inaccessible areas.

 To understand the history of the donkey’s domestication, teams at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CNRS/ Université Toulouse 3 Paul Sabatier) and scientists from 37 laboratories around the world worked together to build and analyse the most complete panel of genomes ever studied for this animal. 


They constructed a comprehensive genome panel containing 207 modern and 31 ancient donkeys, as well as 15 wild equids. 


Reporting their findings in the journal Science, the researchers reveal that the donkey was first domesticated in Africa in 7,000 years ago, around the time when the Sahara became the desert region we know today. 


They state that it was only 2,500 years later that donkeys left their place of origin in Africa and reached Europe and Asia, where this species developed lineages that, in some cases, still exist today. 


“We found a strong phylogeographic structure in modern donkeys that supports a single domestication in Africa ~5000 BCE, followed by further expansions in this continent and Eurasia and ultimately returning to Africa.”


By analysing archaeological remains, scientists also uncovered evidence of a previously unknown genetic lineage of donkeys that lived in the Levant, around the eastern Mediterranean, 2,000 years ago. The influence of this lineage is thought to extend far beyond the region, and still today, fragments of its genetic heritage can be found throughout Europe. 


The researchers suggest that these discoveries call for new archaeological digs to find the initial source of domestication in Africa, as well as the sequencing of other early donkey genomes on both shores of the Mediterranean sea, to better understand the role of this animal in the history of trade between Europe and North Africa.


For more details, see:


The genomic history and global expansion of domestic donkeys.


Evelyn T. Todd, Laure Tonasso-Calvière, Lorelei Chauvey, Stéphanie Schiavinato, Antoine Fages, Andaine Seguin-Orlando, Pierre Clavel, Naveed Khan, Lucía Perez Pardal, Laura Patterson Rosa, Pablo Librado, Harald Ringbauer, Marta Verdugo, John Southon, Jean-Marc Aury, Aude Perdereau, Emmanuelle Vila, Matilde Marzullo, Ornella Prato, Umberto Tecchiati, Giovanna Bagnasco Gianni, Antonio Tagliacozzo, Vincenzo Tinè, Francesca Alhaique, João Luís Cardoso, Maria João Valente, Miguel Telles Antunes, Laurent Frantz, Beth Shapiro, Daniel G. Bradley, Nicolas Boulbes, Armelle Gardeisen, Liora Kolska Horwitz, Aliye Öztan, Benjamin S. Arbuckle, Vedat Onar, Benoît Clavel, Sébastien Lepetz, Ali Akbar Vahdati, Hossein Davoudi, Azadeh Mohaseb, Marjan Mashkour, Olivier Bouchez, Cécile Donnadieu, Patrick Wincker, Samantha A. Brooks, Albano Beja-Pereira,  Dong-Dong Wu, Ludovic Orlando.


Science, (2022). Vol 377, Issue 6611 pp. 1172-1180



Friday, September 23, 2022

Does exercising foals reduce risk of later fracture?

(c) Rookie72 Dreamstime.com
 Can putting foals on a controlled exercise program reduce the risk of fractures later in life?
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) are investigating.

Limb fractures risk ending not only a horse’s career but its life as well.


Led by Dr. Annette McCoy and Dr. Mariana Kersh, the research team are looking at the benefits of a carefully controlled exercise program in foals. The study is funded by the Morris Animal Foundation.


“We know from another study that mild exercise early in life is associated with positive effects in horses, but exactly how it stimulates bone growth in areas susceptible to fractures is still unknown,” says Dr. Annette McCoy, Associate Professor of Equine Surgery. “Exercise interventions earlier in their lives might better prepare a horse’s bones to face the mechanical forces they will see in their late adolescence and adulthood.”


The research draws on information from human medicine, where studies show that children who exercise are less prone to injury as adolescents and adults, and that bone changes are sustained over time. 


In an earlier study, Dr. McCoy found that pasture-raised foals in their first year of life are relatively inactive about 85% of the time. The research group wondered whether this low level of voluntary exercise during the period of most rapid growth could contribute to bone injuries when horses are put into work as young adults.


The team also knew that too much exercise could have a detrimental effect on foals. Any exercise program should increase activity without over-stressing the foal.


The project, being conducted on the University of Illinois Horse Farm, is due to run over two years.  The first six Standardbred foals were enrolled in 2021. A further six foals joined the study this year.


When each foal was 8 weeks old, the group performed baseline computed tomography (CT) exams on each foal’s forelimbs to create a three-dimensional picture. The exams measured bone properties, including density and volume. 


Foals were then divided into two equal groups. Three foals participated in an 8-week exercise plan, consisting of 1,500 yards of fast trotting in a field once per day, five days per week. The other three foals served as non-exercised controls. 


When each foal reached 16 weeks of age, the team performed another CT scan of their limbs to compare differences in bone development. When the foals are about 1 year old, the team will take one final CT scan to see if any changes remain after the conclusion of the program.


All the data will be combined into a computer model to help predict the effects of a variety of exercise interventions on bone properties without having to test them in live horses. 

Although horses come in many shapes and sizes, Dr. McCoy hopes the results will help better manage foals of all breeds destined for activities where front leg fractures are common.


“Most foals, regardless of breed, spend the first year of their lives sleeping, standing and walking,” said Dr. McCoy. “Because we’re really focused on the pre-training period, I think that our findings should be applicable across breeds.”


“One of our goals with this project was to create a computer model that we could use in the future to virtually test exercise interventions in foals,” she said. “What one of our graduate students discovered is that the bones of foals react differently than adult horses to mechanical forces. This meant we couldn’t use the existing adult horse modelling systems for our study – we created something completely new. Nobody had demonstrated this before, and our student won the PhD competition at a recent meeting for this discovery!”

Dr. McCoy hopes to have all their data analyzed by the end of summer 2023.


For more details, see:



Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Long term horse-owner relationship helps horses cope with change

(c) Photojogtom Dreamstime.com

A new study shows that horses can be more reluctant in new situations if they have multiple riders or have had several owners, or if the horse has been with its current owner for only a short time. 

 The international research team, including scientists from Turku and Helsinki Universities in Finland, and the INRAE of Nouzilly in France, studied interactions between horses and humans as well as how horses react in new situations. The findings are published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 


Over the millenia horses have been living with humans, they have developed impressive social skills: they are receptive to human emotions and are very good at understanding human demands.


"Domestic horses may spend several hours daily in close contact with humans, which can affect horse welfare, physiology, and behaviour” says the lead author of the study, Doctoral Researcher Océane Liehrmann from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku, Finland.


“Therefore, it is important to understand which factors can influence the horses' emotions during interactions with humans and what shapes their relationship -- particularly in novel situations that can be very stressful to the animals," 


The researchers recruited 76 privately owned leisure horses from the Turku area to perform two behavioural tests, in which they observed and analysed the horses' reactions to novel objects. 


In the first test, horses were led to walk on two surfaces that were new to them, a white tarpaulin sheet, and a fluffy blanket. They were led to one of the surfaces by their owner and to the other one by an unfamiliar researcher. 


Secondly, the researchers studied whether, when presented with a new object, the horse reacted differently depending on whether they were with a familiar owner or with a stranger. Horses were shown a fluffy stuffed toy by either their owner or an unfamiliar researcher. The horse had one minute in which to freely come and interact with the toy. Then the person approached the horse and tried to touch its neck with the toy.


"Interestingly, horses with an exclusive relationship with their owner were the calmest when approaching the novel surfaces and easily agreed to be touched with the toy. Horses that are regularly ridden or trained by different persons showed more stress behaviours in the test situations," Liehrmann says.


Similarly, Horses that had spent their whole life with their owner agreed more often to be touched with the new toy than horses that had had several owners during their life. These horses presented more stress behaviours and refused more often to be touched with the toy.

"Horses often have to change ownership, which restricts their ability to make a long-term bond with specific humans. We were particularly interested in studying how the length of the relationship between the horse and the owner affects the horse's behaviour in new, potentially stressful situations," Liehrmann says.


The results showed that horses with shorter relationships with their owner were more reluctant in novel situations and presented more stress behaviours when asked to interact with novel objects and surfaces. On the contrary, horses that had at least 6 to 8 years of relationship with their owner, were mostly very calm when introduced to the surfaces or the stuffed toy.


Horses older than 17 years old refused more often to step on the tarp or the blanket when they were led by a stranger, while they almost all agreed to do so when they were led by their owner.


"Geriatric horses often suffer from poorer eyesight, and it has been shown that they may feel more anxiety towards new situations than younger horses. Therefore, older horses may perceive someone familiar as a secure base, feeling safer to walk over an unknown material when led by a familiar person."


The study shows that having a shorter relationship with the owner, multiple handlers and numerous owner-changes can increase the horse's reluctance to novel objects and surfaces and therefore may negatively impact the horse-human interactions in new situations.


"Our findings suggest that a positive horse-human relationship may take time to develop as it is shaped by multiple factors, such as the horse's previous interactions with humans. Overall, the results show that animals' relationships with their human caretakers should be better considered in animal welfare and its research," Liehrmann concludes.


For more details, see:


Multiple handlers, several owner changes and short relationship lengths affect horses’ responses to novel object tests. 

Océane Liehrmann, Alisa Viitanen, Veera Riihonen, Emmi Alander, Sonja E. Koski, Virpi Lummaa, Léa Lansade. 

Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2022; 254: 105709