We all want pristine and productive pastures for our horses. Research suggests mixing grazing species can help support healthy pasture maintenance. But while protecting the pasture is important, so is protecting the welfare of the animals living on it. That’s why researchers recently studied the behavior of horses sharing a pasture with sheep. They wanted to see how the animals interacted with each other and how they used the pasture resources (namely plants, water, and shade).
They found that the sheep and horses in their study coexisted peacefully and even began to intermingle, said Monika GreguÅ‚a-Kania, PhD, of the University of Life Sciences Institute of Animal Breeding and Biodiversity Conservation, in Lublin, Poland.
“We observed no aggression between these species,” GreguÅ‚a-Kania said. “Both species mixed together and even drank from one single water tank at the same time.”
GreguÅ‚a-Kania and colleagues studied four Konik horses (a local semiferal breed adapted to the Polish climate and environment) pastured with 37 native ewes and their lambs in a field large enough to prevent food or water competition.
All the animals grazed intensively from 7 to 10 a.m., but rising temperatures affected the horses’ grazing behavior, causing them to slow down, more than it did the sheep, she said. The horses also preferred shady areas during the strongest heat whereas the sheep continued to graze under the direct sun.
Horses made about three times more trips to the water tank during July compared to August, she said, apparently due to the hot weather. During the autumn grass growth period, both species grazed and drank more frequently, she said.
The sheep showed submissive behavior toward the horses, backing away when they approached, she said. However, the horses never showed aggression toward the sheep like they sometimes did toward each other. While the horses would occasionally approach the adult sheep to sniff them, they left the lambs alone, GreguÅ‚a-Kania said.
The use of grazing animals in fields helps control grass growth, making it possible for other “more desirable” species to grow for improved land conservation, GreguÅ‚a-Kania said. Horses tend to choose the most nutritious grasses, ripping them out by the roots, whereas sheep prefer new green leaves and stems, she said. And, horses avoid some kinds of grasses that sheep eat willingly, which can help “even out” the different grazing styles to benefit the conservation effort.
“We can use a horse-based grazing system to maintain structure and diversity in some areas,” GreguÅ‚a-Kania summed up.