Exclusive sneak peek from our honorary and founding fellows: Part 6 Professor Jan Ladewig


Covering a recent talk on discussing domestic and wild animal behaviour, equine social cohesion/socialisation, group housing and rider safety.

In an exclusive interview with Professor Jan Ladewig, an ISES Honorary Fellow, he provides us with invaluable insights to help horse owners and caretakers to improve and enhance horse behaviour, well-being and safety.


"A few months ago I was invited to serve as an opponent at a Doctorate Dissertation on group housing of horses. To start the procedure, I was asked to give a short talk on the background for the subject, a request that made me look back on the almost 50 years in which I have been involved in research on the behavior of domestic animals. 


Fifty years ago domestic animals were more or less considered “production units” that should generate more money than it cost to keep them. They were mostly kept in small cages or crates, in barren pens, or in tie stalls, with nothing to do except eat, drink and produce. The barren environmental conditions created a number of behavior problems in the animals, and often these problems were “fixed” with some surgical procedure. Fattening pigs had their tails amputated to avoid tail biting, egg laying hens had their beaks trimmed to avoid feather pecking, horses had some of their neck muscles removed to stop crib biting, to name just a few types of interventions.

In the years that followed we were mostly busy looking for the reasons for the behavior problems in the animals. We knew it was stress related but not always why they were stressed. For instance, we subjected the experimental animals to restrictive conditions and compared their behavioral and physiological reactions with that of control animals kept in a less restrictive environment, searching for behavioral and physiological stress indicators. To make a long story short, we found a number of reasons why the animals were stressed and many of them indicated that the animals had some behavioral requirements that were not being met. 


Parallel to this research, a different approach was started by one of the pioneers of domestic animal behavior, David Woodgush. In the mid-seventies David started some projects in which he released first hens, later pigs, out into semi-natural areas and observed their behavior. In the following years he and his co-workwers found that, despite the fact that the animals had been raised under very restrictive conditions, their behavioral repertoire was identical to that of their wild ancestors, once they were released. For instance, domestic sows released into forest areas were able to build nests and raise their piglets, without stepping on them or laying down on them when they returned to the nest. The bigger piglets spent part of the day chewing on and investigating sticks, stones, and other objects, instead of chewing on each other’s tails. The research showed clearly that the behavioral repertoire of domestic pigs was identical to that known from wild boars.  


David Woodgush was the first behavior biologist to release domestic animals into nature, yet, it was not the first time this return to nature had happened. For thousands of years the same thing has happened to horses. Probably ever since horses were first kept by humans, some of them escaped or were released on purpose, forming populations of what is known today as feral horses. The best known examples are the mustangs of North America and the brumbies of Australia, but numerous other examples can be found all over the world.

Luckily, many of these feral horse populations have now been studied (see e.g. the book by Wendy Williams: The Horse. A biography of our noble companion). In my opinion, two of the most important characteristics of horse behavior that have resulted from these studies are, one, how extremely important social cohesion is to horses and two, how peaceful horses living together generally are. 


The vast majority of the feral horses live in groups of varying size and stability, either in bands (or harems) or in bachelor groups. Adult mares mostly live with a stallion year round but contrary to earlier belief the stallion is not necessarily dominating the mares. He may round them up if other stallions or predators approach but other than that he is mostly following the mares around. His primary function is to keep the mares pregnant and to ensure that they live in a home range that fulfills their needs for food, water, and protection from predators. Other than that he may also bond with some of the mares plus he interacts with the young ones, particularly with his sons. 


Within the band competition is very limited. Of course, due to individual variation some of the mares may not get along, but any differences are mostly solved through threats rather than actual fights. The young ones learn from birth on to observe the body language of the older horses and of their peers, learning that retreat is generally a better strategy than attack. 


We have come a long way - but we still have some distance to go 


Obviously, we cannot create an environment for our riding horses that is even near that of feral horses but there are still a number of things we can do to get a little bit closer. The most important requirement is that horses are kept in groups day and night, either indoor or outdoor or, preferably both. Keeping them in individual box stalls at night and on paddocks during the day is only a suboptimal solution. 


For various reasons group housing of horses is still limited. Most horses are still kept in individual box stalls. Horse owners are reluctant to let their horses together with other horses, despite the fact that research clearly shows fewer health problems in horses kept in groups than in individual kept horses. In addition, management of group housed horses demands more experience. Although horses are relatively peaceful not all of them get along together. Introducing new group members and building the right groups can be challenging.  


Another important thing we need to pay attention to is the socialization process of young horses. Apart from the natural process, young domestic horses must also learn to be handled and ridden in an easy and safe way. Training them in these tasks is easier the earlier it is done. Basic training (e.g. to stand still on command, to go forward and to stop, etc.) plus exposure to the many situations they will meet later in life (e.g. traffic, trailer transport, dogs, plastic, cattle and sheep on a field or in a nature reservation, to name a few), is all part of the preparation of a riding horse. Although this preparation seems like a huge task, it does not have to be. Research on dogs and horses has shown that training relatively infrequently is sufficient or even more effective than frequent training. 


Statistics show that horseback riding is a risky type of sport. One area that we do not have statistics on is how many people give up riding because they for some reason become fearful of the sport. Improvement of housing conditions and better preparation of riding horses will undoubtedly make horseback riding a less risky and more attractive sport."