Horses in the Wild Have Lower Welfare Levels

The danger of predators, the search for food and water, social dynamics. These could be the basic elements of a higher level of stress in free-roaming horses, compared to those in stables and under human managementAccording to a study conducted by the Department of Animal Welfare of the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Teramopublished in the journal Animals.

The researchers examined 47 horses, divided into three groups: sixteen belonging to the Ladispoli State Police, where they carried out training and field work; sixteen employees of the public order services, in force at the Rome State Police; fifteen, finally, living in the wild in the mountains of the Abruzzo region, recruited thanks to the collaboration of a local breeder. All the subjects were previously selected on the basis of the absence of acute and chronic pathologies and following the main evaluation parameters of the “AWIN” well-being evaluation protocol. The selected horses were then subjected to an analysis of cortisol levels in their hair.

“Cortisol – says Dr. Francesco Cerasoli, first author of the study – is considered a valid indicator of stress, according to the scientific literature. Thus, its quantity in the hair can constitute an “archive”, providing information on the state of chronic well-being of the animal”.

The tests, carried out with a standardized procedure and with an analysis method used for the first time for this purpose, led to apparently unexpected results. “We have seen – continues Cerasoli – that the cortisol level was higher in the group of horses living in the wild than in the two groups kept in the stable and employed in intense work activities. This evidence contradicts some common beliefs that an animal in the wild, capable of expressing its natural behavior, would experience higher levels of welfare than one at work and managed by humans (obviously following correct management procedures).” In other words, the stressors induced by adequate human management have a lesser impact than those present in nature.

“Our study – explains the researcher – shows that animals managed by the State Police, although subjected to work and / or the service of public order, an activity presumably rich in stressors, experience cortisol levels weaker. Our conclusion is that good management by humans seems more respectful of the welfare of horses than a pure natural condition”.

“This study – comments Dr. Nicolas D’Alterio, Director General of IZSAM – included a greater number of animals than other previous international research. The results open a very interesting avenue towards understanding the factors that contribute to equine welfare. And it should be emphasized how this survey technique, which can also be extended to other species, could be an objective tool for assessing stress, becoming a benchmark for animal welfare, an area that is attracting growing interest. these last years “.


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