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J Exp Biol. 2012 Apr 1;215(Pt 7):1061-8. doi: 10.1242/jeb.064832.

Adaptation strategies to seasonal changes in environmental conditions of a domesticated horse breed, the Shetland pony (Equus ferus caballus).

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  • 1Department of Animal Sciences, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany.


Recent results suggest that the wild ancestor of the horse, the Przewalski horse, exhibits signs of a hypometabolism. However, there are speculations that domestic animals lost the ability to reduce energy expenditure during food shortage and adverse environmental conditions. Therefore, we investigated physiological and behavioural strategies employed by a robust domesticated horse breed, the Shetland pony, over the course of a year under temperate conditions by measuring ambient temperature (T(a)), subcutaneous temperature (T(s)), locomotor activity (LA), lying time, resting heart rate, body mass and body condition score. Ten animals were kept on pasture in summer and in open stables in winter; further, in winter the animals were allocated into one control and one feed-restricted group of five animals each to simulate natural seasonal food shortage. The annual course of the mean daily T(s) of all horses showed distinct fluctuations from a mean of 35.6±0.5°C, with higher variations in summer than in winter. Diurnal amplitudes in T(s) were highest (P<0.001) in April (12.6°C) and lowest in January (4.0°C), with a nadir around dawn and a peak around mid-day. The feed-restricted group had a significantly lower daily T(s) compared with the control group on cold winter days, with T(a) values below 0°C. Mean annual heart rate and LA followed T(a) closely. Heart rate of the feed-restricted animals significantly decreased from a mean of 52.8±8.1 beats min(-1) in summer to 29±3.9 beats min(-1) in winter and differed from the control group (P<0.001). Mean daily LA was lowest at the end of winter (7000 activity impulses day(-1)) and highest in summer (25,000 activity impulses day(-1)). Our results show that Shetland ponies exhibit signs of a winter hypometabolism indicated by reduced heart rate and T(s). Thus, domesticated horses seem to have maintained the capacity for seasonal adaptation to environmental conditions by seasonal fluctuations in their metabolic rate.

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