Do You Think I Am Living Well? A Four-Season Hair Cortisol Analysis on Leisure Horses in Different Housing and Management Conditions
Dipartimento di Medicina Veterinaria, Università degli Studi di Milano, 26900 Lodi, Italy
Dipartimento di Scienze Agrarie e Ambientali-Produzione, Territorio e Agroenergia, Università degli Studi di Milano, 20133 Milan, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Glenys Noble
Received: 3 June 2021
Revised: 15 July 2021
Accepted: 16 July 2021
Published: 20 July 2021
The satisfaction of behavioral needs in leisure horses has begun to be considered a priority. There is growing awareness that horses kept in single boxes may be deprived of social contact and the possibility to perform natural behaviors. However, many practical factors may influence horses’ quality of life also in the paddock. In the literature, few studies have compared the effects of different variables related to paddock housing on leisure horses’ welfare. Therefore, managerial choices faced by owners, stables managers, and breeders cannot be based on concrete facts that are scientifically supported but only rely on experience, common sense, and anecdotal beliefs. This study aimed to assess and compare the chronic stress level in three groups of leisure horses, homogeneous in terms of sex and age, hosted in paddocks in structures in the same geographic area with a different daily routine, in order to verify which could be the one that best contributes to achieve the welfare of horses. The hair cortisol concentration, a reliable marker of chronic stress, was analyzed in 47 horses; samples were collected the same day for all the subjects four times during a year, once for each season. The results highlighted that the highest hair cortisol values were detected in the autumn and summer independently from the management strategies and were also significantly higher in individuals older than 15 years. The hair cortisol concentration was not influenced by horses’ sex or coat color. The comparison of the different management strategies showed that in the summer, autumn, and winter, the hair cortisol levels were significantly lower in horses who spent the night in the stables, indicating that those subjects had the best homeostasis. These findings, if confirmed by further studies, may be useful to enhance horse welfare and assist in management choice decision-making.