27 February 2024

Dominance hierarchy does not influence distances travelled and area utilization in a large group of ponies

Group of Shetland ponies / Dreamstime.com
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Weidling, G., Krieter, J., Lübben, R., & Czychol, I. (2024)
Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Elsevier


In order to improve existing horse husbandry practices by providing social contact and exercise opportunities, it is necessary to fully understand the behaviour of horses in relation to group housing. Therefore, this study investigated the influence of dominance hierarchy on the locomotor behaviour and area utilization in a large group of horses in a pasture-based housing system in Northern Germany. The movements of 40 ponies with established group affiliations were observed over approximately one month from late August to early October 2022 using GPS technology. Their dominance hierarchy was determined by testing each possible combination in separate pair-feeding tests. For the determination of area utilization, the available space was divided into a total of 8889 quadrants with 3x3 m each. Analysis of daily distances travelled by the horses revealed an average of 5.4 ± 1.2 km/day, with no significant effect of social rank. However, age had a significant effect, with older horses walking shorter distances. Quadrants used per hour, as measure of area utilization, averaged 37.9 ± 6.4, with no effect of social rank but a significant effect of age observed. Heat maps showed full pasture utilization, with lower ranked horses having less access to resources around the watering trough and a greater use of less attractive grazing areas. The study suggests that in this specific setting, social rank did not significantly affect locomotor behaviour or area use. Although the study did not find a correlation between dominance rank and locomotor behaviour or area use, it highlighted the need for further research in different group sizes and housing systems to optimise group housing practices for horses, especially in settings with limited space and resources.

Dominance hierarchy does not influence distances travelled and area utilization in a large group of ponies (URL)