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Dr Deborah Goodwin feeding Belle, one of the horses that took part in the research project

Mixed courses for horses: research shows the benefits of a varied diet in stables

Providing stabled horses with a range of forages could significantly reduce abnormal behaviour patterns, according to animal behaviour experts at the University of Southampton.

In collaboration with the WALTHAM Equine Studies Group, based in Leicestershire, the Southampton team has been investigating the link between diet and behaviour in stabled horses. Their findings, published the Equine Veterinary Journal, show that when provided with a variety of forages to choose from, stabled horses exhibited less 'abnormal' and potentially harmful behaviour.

The research is of particular importance to trainers of racehorses, eventers, dressage horses, and other competition horses, which necessarily often have restricted access to pasture, and which have already been identified as being at risk of developing behaviour problems.

Research leader, Dr Deborah Goodwin, lecturer in Applied Animal Behaviour at University of Southampton New College, explains: 'Unlike horses at pasture which have access to a variety of grasses and other plants, many stabled horses have highly restricted diets, often with only one or two foods available to them at a time. Previous studies have linked this to changes in patterns of behaviour, including a tendency for horses to eat their straw bed, a habit that can lead to colic, which is a potentially fatal condition.

'Our study involved four trials with the same 12 competition horses taking part in each. We monitored their behaviour when provided with a single food and compared this with the behaviour they displayed when six types of food were available.'

The researchers found that by supplying multiple 'forages' they could significantly affect the behaviour of stabled horses, promoting natural foraging behaviour patterns, reducing their consumption of straw, and reducing the amount of non-foraging behaviour, including behaviour problems such as 'weaving' and 'pawing'.

'Further work is needed to understand the effects of supplying multiple forages in the long term,' adds Dr Goodwin. 'However, as horses are commonly fed restricted and monotonous diets, our results show that by providing multiple forages, it may be possible not only to reduce the amount of straw consumed by stabled horses, but to enrich their environment and promote their welfare.

'It is understandable that horses, like humans, enjoy a varied diet and get bored with the same foods all the time. Interestingly, our study showed that when a choice of forages was provided, hay, perhaps rather predictably, was the least preferred.'

The paper 'Foraging enrichment for stabled horses: effects on behaviour and selection' is published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, Equine vet.J. (2002) 34 (7) 686-691.

The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrates its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £215 million.

WALTHAM is a world leading authority on pet care and nutrition, engaging the services of over 600 experts, including 170 veterinarians, globally in support of the advancement of the health, longevity and well being of pets. - SotONLINE, the University of Southampton's daily electronic news service - an A-Z guide of University experts


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