Reassuring research about carriage horses

New research may help allay concerns that pulling carriages through the streets of New York City places horses under stress.

In recent years, animal-rights activists have sought a ban on carriages in Manhattan, arguing that working in the urban setting is detrimental to the health and welfare of horses.

To investigate stress levels associated with pulling carriages in America’s largest city, researchers at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, traveled east to assess the condition of a randomly selected group of 18 carriage horses over a three-day period during the summer of 2015. Thirteen of the horses were stabled in the city and worked each day. The other five, which served as controls, were pastured in Pennsylvania as part of a regular “furlough” period required for all horses in the city.

For three successive days, the researchers collected saliva and thermographic samples from each working horse four times daily—when they were at rest, prepared for work, just returned from work, and an hour after work. In addition, a single fecal sample was taken from each of the working horses and each of the furloughed horses.

The fecal and salivary samples were tested for the presence and amount of cortisol, which increases when animals are stressed. When each of the fecal and saliva samples were taken from the working horses, the researchers also measured their medial canthus (eye) temperatures, another indicator of stress.

The data showed no statistical difference in the levels of fecal cortisol of the working horses and the resting horses. And although there were some fluctuations in saliva cortisol and eye temperature over the course of each day, neither rose to levels that were indicative of stress. 

The researchers conclude that “these working NYC carriage horses did not have physiologic responses indicative of a negative welfare status.”

Reference: “Use of fecal glucocorticoid and salivary cortisol concentrations as a measure of well- being of New York City carriage horses,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, February 2017

This article was originally published the April 2016 issue, Volume #475 of EQUUS magazine

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