Raspa, F., Tarantola, M., Bergero, D. et al. 2020. Stocking density affects welfare indicators in horses reared for meat production. Animals 10(6), 1103.
Horses kept for meat production are reared in intensive breeding farms. We employed a checklist adapted from the Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) assessment protocol. Our evaluation aims to assess whether welfare indicators are influenced by stocking densities (m2/horse) and feeding strategies applied. An analysis was carried out on the data obtained from 7 surveys conducted at a single horse farm designed for meat production. In each survey, the same 12 pens were assessed, but on each occasion, the horses in the pens had been changed as had the stocking densities. Briefly, 561 horses aged 16 ± 8 months (mean ± standard deviation) were evaluated. Two stocking density cut-off values (median and 75th percentile: 3.95 and 4.75 m2/horse, respectively) were applied to investigate the effect of stocking density on horse welfare. Data were analysed using Mann–Whitney U and Fisher’s exact tests (p < 0.05). When cut-off was set as the median percentile, lower stocking density was associated with improvements in body condition score (BCS), coat cleanliness and bedding quantity, less coughing, less resting in a standing position, and less feeding related to the greater space available at the feed bunk. When the 75th percentile cut-off was used, indicators that improved were coat cleanliness, bedding quantity and mane and tail condition, as well as less resting in standing position and less feeding related to the greater space available at the feed bunk. Accordingly, the use of two different stocking density cut-off values showed that the increase of space allowance affected specific welfare indicators. Further increment of space and/or changes in management regimes should be investigated to improve all the indicators. Moreover, results related to feeding indicated the need to intervene as starch intakes exceeded recommended safe levels, negatively affecting horse welfare.