An attempt to assess the welfare of horses maintained in herd systems
The aim of the study was to assess the welfare, using the Welfare Quality criteria, of horses maintained in natural conditions. The study material was a herd of Hucul horses, consisting of 14 mares with offsprings and a stallion, maintained in a herd system on pastures. The research was conducted in the months of March, July and November in 2010 and 2012. Nutrition assessment was based on access to feedstuff, water, including their state. Analysis of levels of maintenance involved evaluating prevailing weather conditions, stocking rate as well as horses’ freedom of movement in the delineated land area. Assessment of the herd’s health condition was based on interviews with the supervising veterinarian. Horses’ behaviour was assessed through observations that relied on their social, affiliative and agonistic behaviours. The condition of the horses was influenced by the period of year, with the best being in November (P≤0.01). Maintenance conditions and exploitation affected the herd’s state of health, with no illnesses or injuries being reported over the analysed period. Seasons of the year had impacts on the horses’ behaviour (P≤0.01). In summer, grazing took place in the late evenings and early mornings, with animals kept under sheds. Intensified feeding was observed in November. No stereotypical behaviours were observed. Heart rate measurements were a pointer to the animals’ emotional balance and attitudes towards people. The observed high level of horses’ welfare suggested that a natural herd system of management ought to be preferred and propagated.