News Release

Horses in the wild have lower welfare levels than those living in the stable and engaged in work activities

New IZSAM research shows that, by analyzing cortisol levels in horsehair, it is possible to estimate horses well-being

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell'Abruzzo e del Molise

The danger of predators, the search for food and water, the social dynamics. These could be the elements at the basis of a greater level of stress in free-raging horses, compared to the ones stabled and under human management, according to a study conducted by the Animal Welfare Department of the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Teramo, published in the journal Animals.

The researchers examined 47 horses, divided into three groups: sixteen belonging to the State Police of Ladispoli, where they carried out training and field work; sixteen engaged in public order services, in force at the Rome State Police; fifteen, finally, living in the wild in the mountains of 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" wellness evaluation protocol. The selected horses were then subjected to analysis of the cortisol levels in their horsehair.

“Cortisol - says Dr. Francesco Cerasoli, first author of the study - is considered to be a valid indicator of stress, according to scientific literature. So its amount in the horsehair can be an 'archive', providing information about the animal’s chronic status of well-being”.

The tests, performed with a standardized procedure and with an analysis method used for the first time for this purpose, led to apparently unexpected results. “We saw - 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 stating that a free-raging animal, capable of expressing its natural behaviour, would experience higher levels of well-being than the one at work and managed by humans (obviously following correct management procedures)”. In other words, the stress factors induced by adequate human management have a lesser impact than those present in the wild.

“Our study - explains the researcher - shows that the animals managed by State Police, although subjected to work and / or public order service, an activity presumably rich in stressful factors, experience lower cortisol levels. Our conclusion is that proper management by humans seems more respectful of horses’ well-being than a pure nature condition”.

"This study - comments Dr Nicola D’Alterio, General Manager of IZSAM – included a greater number of animals than other previous international research. The findings pave a very interesting path towards understanding the factors that contribute to equine well-being. And we must highlight how this survey technique, which can also be extended to other species, could be an objective tool for assessing stress, becoming a point of reference for animal welfare, a field sparking growing interest in recent years”.

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