Tag Archives: horse

The ideal horse-housing system?

What is a horse, really? I don’t mean to find an answer to a description of what a horse looks like, I mean, we all know that it has four legs, a head, mane and tail. But think again. What makes a horse, a horse? What does a horse do? Let’s look at a horse in a natural environment: Were you aware that a horse is a grazing animal, spending roughly about 16 hours a day browsing for food? Or did you know that horses are highly social animals, living their whole life in dynamic herds? Have you thought about the amount of time a wild horse spends moving around?

“What do individual boxes offer? Social isolation, no space to roam around and limited feed supply.”

Keep those thoughts in mind. Now let’s imagine the average horse stable. What do you see? Most likely, individual boxes. What do they offer? Social isolation, no space to roam around and limited feed supply. Now tell me, how come that modern horse owners still believe this is a good solution? Yes, I believe horse owners have the best intentions at heart, spending hours a week to muck out stables, cleaning water buckets and spending large amounts of money on the latest concentrates. However, I do not think that this way of horse keeping is ideal in terms of horse health and welfare or human labour and ergonomics.

Luckily, I am not alone in this. Innovative designs for more natural ways of horse keeping are increasing in popularity throughout Europe. Last week the housing course arranged an excursion to one of these stables making use of a design that is adapted specifically towards the horse’s needs. This one was a so called ‘active stable’. I must admit, I have seen and experienced many different horse stables in my life, but never was I as much impressed as with this one.

The double feed station

Marma Torp is a small scale horse facility that houses Icelandic horses exclusively. Their philosophy is that loose-housing of horses fulfils both the physical and psychological needs in a better way compared to stabled housing. Besides, they are convinced that a modern active stable is not advantageous for the horses only, the people benefit as well. For example this way of horse keeping demands relatively little labour and seems not more expensive than traditional housing in the long run.

The chip on the neck collar and the access door to the feed

All the horses wear a collar which includes a chip that gives them access to the feed stations. In this way, the horse chooses itself when it would like to eat, and how often. Although the total amount is managed by the people through a computer system. When the horse enters the feeding station the doors behind the horse close, so that no other horse can enter at the same time. When the doors are closed the feed will become available, as the partial door towards the feed is lowered. After a set time the door towards the feed rises again, meaning feeding time is finished. The horse leaves the feeding station and can come back at a later time. In this way the horse is able to eat small portions of roughage throughout the day, without any human labour involved. The bales of hay are moved into the feed station mechanically.

Unlimited straw provision and the walk-in stable in the back

The area where the horses walk around freely consists of a gravel paddock, a small forestry area and grassland. Besides the feed station, a heatable water tub, a wind shelter, unlimited straw provision and a spacious group stable are provided. The whole area is divided into two, to provide a separate mare and gelding herd. The current facility is able to house up to 14 Icelandic horses. We had a critical look at the body condition of the horses. Icelandic horses have a reputation to put on weight easily, but these were all in excellent condition. Impressive, but not surprising, if you consider their smart management. The hay quality is analysed, individual eating time per horse measured and those data together provide the formula for how many hours a day each horse may spend in the feed station.

One of the Icelandic mares coming to greet us

It was really inspiring to listen to and talk with the owners of the place. They are very enthusiastic about the system, even though they had to make several changes from the start. Is it perfect? Almost, if you ask me. For example you could see that some cheeky horses managed to steal from another’s hay. Also, I do think there are still some challenges left when looking at sustainability aspects. Could the manure be collected from the forest area to prevent from phosphorus leaking and be of use elsewhere? What is the energy source behind the feed stations, could solar panels be placed on the roof?

These days Sweden counts about thirty active stables. I don’t want to say that this system will be the solution for everyone, but I think it is a beautiful example of alternative horse housing. It would already be a great step forward to rethink the way we choose to house our horses. Why not look at the opportunities for small changes in our current housing systems towards a more horse-friendly environment as a start. To me, in ‘horseworld’ many things seem to happen because ‘it has alwas been done like this’. Let’s be innovative instead and learn more from each other’s experiences.

Any questions? Comments? Opinions perhaps? Feel free to reply below.


Horses: Body Condition Scoring (BCS)

Horses come in many different types and breeds, shapes and sizes. It can be difficult to see whether a horse is fat or muscled, healthy or skinny. Luckily for us, Henneke et al. developed a rather good system to analyse horse body condition back in 1983, that is still widely used. In the past weeks professor Anna Jansson provided us with some very informative lectures on horse feeding and health. Her lectures were so inspiring and thorough, she definitely made into my list of favourite teachers. I like her way of describing the body condition scoring system as ‘a subjective evaluation trying to perfom in an objective way‘. Even though subjective, when people are well trained in this method they can reach very similar scoring outcomes – accurate up to a decimal. To overcome individual differences in scoring, when used in scientific research it is recommended that one person completes all the scoring needed.

The focus regions of BCS in the system of Henneke
Source: Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine

In the picture above you can see which areas of the horse are mainly considered when giving a score. Note how the lower belly is not taken into consideration. The way the horse’s belly looks has a stronger relation to other factors such as forage intake and the training of belly muscles than to fat tissue. It can be very misleading – especially with broodmares – to judge the horse on the size of the belly.

Even though you can read all about it in theory, I think this is one of these things you won’t be great at from the start. The more you’ll do it, the more likely you will end up with accurate scores. Therefore I appreciated the practicals on this topic a lot. Not were we only showed what to look at, we were offered several horses to practise on as well. Great! 🙂

Professor Anna Jansson giving instructions about BCS to part of our class

An interesting approach we learned during the practical was not to score the horse directly in one number. We had to divide the body into 4 main regions and give individual scoring for these areas first. A&B formed the first region, C&D the second and finally both E and F got an individual number. Based on these four numbers you estimated an overall score. It was interesting to see the difference in fat storage location between different horses. Some horses may seem low in body condition on the ‘middle’, but store fat in neck and or back. Practising body condition scoring in separate parts can also be practical for research purposes. For example if you are enrolled in a study attempting to find whether there is a specific relation between adipose neck tissue and insulin resistance.

A practical guide to BCS based on the original paper of Henneke et al. in 1983
Source: Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine

I think it would be very useful if more horse owners would practise themselves in estimating body condition. Nowadays the amount of overweight and obese horses in Western-European countries is becoming a – literally – big issue. However, I reckon that at least half of the owners with overweight horses think their horses are in a healthy shape. From personal experience I’d say that many owners freak out when they can feel the ribs very easily. Though the optimal scoring – number five – literally says ‘ribs can be easily felt’. The horse body condition is mainly the result of the feeding and housing management of the owner – the owner has the power to change the conditions for the horse. Owners that do not recognise their horse is being overweight can lead to unnecessary health problems.

Any opinion on this topic, a comment or question? Feel free to leave a reply.


Horses: Colours & Coding

Allright, another post dedicated to the horse-course. As you may have noticed, I am enjoying almost every moment of this course and I am wondering whether I maybe should try to ask less questions during class – my classmates might grow tired of it. It’s just all so interesting! Last week we had classes about the ‘Molecular advances in the horse genome’ by researcher Sofia Mikko and to make a long story short, we talked about genetics. What is heritable and what is not? And if something is actually heritable, to what extent? One thing that is totally defined by genes is the coat colour of horses. We see horses in so many different type of colouring that I thought this would be an extremely difficult topic. However, it is not that bad, or at least the basics are quite straight forward. In fact there are only two main coat colours: Black and red(chestnut). Say what?

“In fact there are only two main coat colours: Black and red. Say what?”

Let me explain this further. There is one gene that decides whether the horse is forming black(dominant) or red(recessive) pigments. And then there are a lot of other genes that can affect this main colour. For example there are genes for diluted versions of the colour and genes causing white patterns and spots. These genes interact with the original genes that are responsible for the black or red colouring. One of the most common is the so called ‘Agouti’ gene. This one interacts with horses that have the gene to be black, making the body partly brown. And that is how the bay horse is created… It might sound a bit strange, but if you think about it, a bay horse still always has black mane, tail and legs. If the horse is red this gene does not express itself, but the horse will be a carrier.

My beautiful horse Jarl, a bay Icelandic. Note that not only his mane and legs are black, but also the tips of his ears. These (together with his tail and nose) are the parts not affected by the agouti gene and express the normal black pigment.

Another famous one is the gene responsible for the grey colouring. You may be aware that a grey horse is actually never born grey. It can be born any colour and turns gradually white over the years. The gene for this to happen is dominant, meaning that a not-grey horse will never be parent to a grey foal. Fun fact: A horse that is homozygous for the grey gene turns white faster compared to a heterozygous grey horse. However, there are also ‘not so fun’ remarks towards this colour. Sadly enough the grey colour – especially the homozygous one – is associated with melanoma(skin cancer) and vitiligo(a pigment related skin condition).

Three Icelandic horses that are all genetically black in their basic genes. In the front Ægir(black with white spotted markings), behind him Kveikur(black with a gene for grey) and behind him a totally black horse.

So you have horses in all types, breeds, and… colours. Which is nice, I mean, lots of those unique colouring patterns are kind of special and I think that to some extent it can be nice to breed for a specific colour that may be rare. However, there are quite some special colours associated with hereditary diseases. And I wonder how many people are aware of that when they are looking for a horse. Or even more important, are they aware of it when they are going to breed with such a horse? For example the beautiful silver dapple colour comes together with abnormalities in the horse’s eye (better known as MCOA). A heterozygous silver dapple horse has increased chances of having cysts in the eye, which may cause vision problems at older age. Though homozygous silver dapple horses are much more likely to develop severe eye problems already from a young age, such as cysts, deformed pupils and vision defects. Therefore crossing a silver dapple with another silver dapple should be avoided for the sake of the horse’s health. Unfortunately some people seem to value aesthetics more than anything else… Meaning to say that in several breeds people aim for some special colour, even though some of these are known to be associated with lethal genes. In other words; having the wrong combination of genes is deadly for the offspring. A famous example of this is the special type of spotting called overo in paint horses, which comes together with the Overo Lethal White Syndrome (OLWS).

The stunning Heimdalur, an Icelandic silver dapple gelding, in front of a herd of more Icelandic horses. 

A generally known saying in Iceland states that ‘a good horse has no colour‘, and I think it would be good for some groups of breeders to think about that a little more when choosing a stallion. If you have any questions or opinion on this, feel free to leave a reply.




The horse-course!

This is really happening. Last week I started my course for the coming half semester, named ‘The biology and use of the Horse’. Even though I doubted a lot beforehand whether I should choose it or not, I am thrilled about it. Because as some of you may know, well, I ‘kind of like’ horses… as in, I guess I am what you call a horse-freak. And that may still be an understatement 😉

The main focus of the study of animal sciences is on farm animals, such as cows, chicken and pigs. These are production animals – responsible for a farmers income – whereas horses and pets are often just kept for hobby. It is the farming sector that provides most jobs related to animal science. Therefore you may doubt how much time you want to spent during your studies on pets, horses and wildlife. It may be fun, but… where will it lead to?

‘Nowadays there are more horses than cows in Sweden’

Well. Think twice. Because nowadays there are actually more horses than cows around in Sweden. Who would have thought?  The horse sector is responsible for a yearly turnover of about 5 billion euros. The estimated number of horses in Sweden was about 360.000 in 2015. This large amount of horses needs to be provided with many hectares of land for grazing and hay production, which has a large impact on both farming and the landscape. The first lecture of the course stretched the importance of the horse industry and I think it was really interesting to look at it from different perspectives.

So far, one of the things I really like about the course is that we are having several excursions and projects scheduled. Guess I might change my mind about it when the first deadlines approach, haha. In the first week we already went to see some horse business which was both interesting and fun. I will tell you all about it in a next blog post!

If you have any questions, comments or whatsoever, please leave a reply and I will come back to it 🙂