October 12, 2005

Study examines preferences of horses

by K.C. Jaehnig

horse web

Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A horse doesn't have to be Mr. Ed to tell you he's unhappy — just watch what he does.

Pacing or chewing the stall, pawing, kicking, tongue lolling, lip licking, constant drinking, even the development of hoof problems all signal a serious case of equine blues, says Sheryl S. King, head of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's equine science program.

"These so-called ‘stall vices' aren't vices at all — they're the damaging effects of too much care," she said.

Most horse owners love their animals. They shelter them from the elements in climate-controlled barns. They give them high-quality food and costly supplements. They protect them from the rough-and-tumble world of herds with their equine pecking orders. To the horse, however, all that feels like prison.

"Horses evolved on the edge of a glacier, adapting to exploit one of the least productive and most demanding niches in the plains environment," King said.

"Their natural habitat is outdoor living, herd association, constant movement and near-constant ingestion of low-quality, fibrous food. The more divorced a domesticated management regime is from the horse's natural state, the more the animal will tend to suffer."

What do horses want? From years of working with these large animals, King thinks it boils down to three things: to eat, to move and to stand around, preferably in the company of other horses.

"In its natural state, a horse's life is spent eating and moving to the next spot to eat — in fact, eating takes up approximately 70 percent of a horse's day," she said.

"Horses don't sleep much, they don't lie down for long periods of time, and although they are very social, they don't seek mental stimulation from other horses. That's all very foreign to the way we humans live."

While King thinks horses would benefit from a little less love, she knows she can't "preach to people who have kept horses all their lives," she said.

"Husbandry practices have been handed down from generation to generation. Unlike the management of other livestock species, no uniform, scientifically based guidelines have been generated for the care of horses."

That's a lack King knows she can do something about. With a $3,200 grant from the state's new Equine Promotion Board — one of seven made from its newly established check-off funds — she has started work on a research project aimed at developing a "best practices" guide to the humane care and management of domestic horses. Along the way, she'll also train some of the next generation of professional horse handlers.

"Every year, I have students come into my program (SIUC offers the state's only four-year equine science degree) with very little horse experience," King said. "I also have students with significant show experience, where the horses are kept in stalls and coddled.

"The best way for them to understand horse behavior is for them to sit and watch it for long periods of time."

So this year, near the end of October, as part of King's introductory horse management course, 29 SIUC equine science majors will work together to watch and describe what horses actually do over a 24-hour period. Some of the horses they watch will have the run of the pasture, some will spend the entire time in their stalls. Others will stay out during the day but return to the

barn at night, while still others will roam free at night, doing stall time in the daylight hours. Some of the stalls will have only natural light, while in others the lights will stay on the whole time.

Each horse will have a large number painted on its side to make it easy to identify. Students will have checklists to help them describe what they see and will take turns watching — from a distance, so they don't affect what the horses do — in two three-hour shifts, one in the daytime and one at night. Night-vision goggles and infrared closed-circuit cameras on the stalls will help them see in the dark, while walkie-talkies will let them contact their supervisors quickly if they run into any problems.

Last year, for example, during a trial run of the process, one of the students called in lost.

"We said, ‘It's only a 60-acre pasture — head for the streetlights!'" King recalled with a chuckle.

Every five minutes, the students will jot down what their particular horses are doing over the following minute, producing 10 such behavior "snapshots" each hour. So as not to disturb the horses, King came up with a novel way of notifying students each time a new observation period starts. She will give each one a portable CD player with earphones and some CDs on horse management with pre-recorded time cues embedded in them.

"Talk about multi-tasking!" King said, laughing. "They'll be learning about horses from a ‘book on tape,' observing horses themselves and taking research data all at the same time!"

King said she would need three to five years of such data, with each set based on different horses, before she has enough information to draw scientifically valid conclusions. Throughout the project, she plans to produce videotapes to show what she's doing and how the horses react. At the end, she hopes to weave it all together in a documentary of sorts that can introduce horse owners to the basic concepts.

"The goal is to get something together that will teach them what makes a horse most comfortable and under what conditions they do their best," she said.

"The approach is based on the innate behaviors of the horse. We are asking the horses to tell us what they prefer rather than making the assumption that the horse prefers what we do."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(Caption: Horsing around — Equine science majors Katherine M. Bleyer (left), a junior at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Iga N. Opanowicz, a freshman exchange student from Gorzow, Poland, get acquainted with Isis. The two will take part in a 24-hour “horse watch,” recording horse behaviors for a minute at a time every five minutes. SIUC animal scientist Sheryl S. King will use the results in producing a guide to principles of humane care for horses, the first such manual based on scientific observation. Bleyer is the daughter of Carbondale residents Rocki and Joanne Bleyer. Opanowicz is the daughter of Wtodzimierz and Elzbieta Opanowiczl.)

Photo by Steve Buhman