A new study led by the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Teramo (IZSAM) has found that free-ranging horses have higher levels of stress, compared to the ones living in stables under human management. This is likely due to factors including the pervasive danger of predators, the continuous need to search for food and water, and the more complex social dynamics characterizing wild horse populations.
The experts analyzed the cortisol levels of 47 horses, divided into three groups: 16 horses belonging to the State Police of Ladispoli, where they carried field work and training, 16 engaged in public order services at the Rome State Police, and 15 living in the wild in the mountains of the Abruzzo region. None of these horses had any acute or chronic pathologies at the beginning of the study.
“Cortisol 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,” said study lead author Francesco Cerasoli, a researcher in Animal Welfare at IZSAM.
The analysis revealed that the cortisol levels were higher in the wild mountain horses than in the two groups kept in stables and involved in intense work activities. “This evidence contradicts some common beliefs stating that a free-raging animal, capable of expressing its natural behavior, would experience higher levels of well-being than the one at work and managed by humans” Cerasoli said.
“Our study 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 – published in the journal Animals – sheds new light on the factors that contribute to equine well-being. In the future, such methods could be extended to other species too in order to reliably assess their stress levels, and could become a point of reference for animal welfare, a field of research which is sparking growing interest recently.