Written by: Antonia Henderson

Discover how to assess and improve your horse’s well-being by learning more about what makes him tick.

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Amy Harris Photo

Most of us with any horse savvy feel that we have a solid sense of when our horses are happy, and that we don’t need a whole lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo to tell us so. However, research suggests that we may not be as skilled at discerning equine well-being as we think. Subtle or non-existent behavioural cues, human desensitization to equine suffering and ignorance about what well-being looks like all compromise our ability to identify equine happiness.

Fortunately, there are objective measures that can provide greater insight into our horses’ psychological well-being. Here, I will explore why our own understanding of a horses’ happiness is prone to error, and how we might do a better job of ensuring that our horses really are the “happy.”

WHY IT IS HARD TO IDENTIFY A “HAPPY” HORSE

1. The problem of stoicism
Although most of us believe that if our horses are stressed they will tell us, research challenges the notion that we can determine a horse’s distress by behavioural indicators alone. British researchers Yarnell and Hall looked at behavioural and physiological measures of stress before, during and after a “sham” clipping – a 10-minute session with clipping blades removed (2013). Based on previous clipping history, horses were grouped as either “compliant” or “non-compliant.” Not surprisingly, non-compliant horses were more reactive and less relaxed. However, both compliant and non-compliant horses exhibited equal physiological indicators of stress: higher cortisol levels, elevated heart rate and increased eye temperature, even in this abbreviated session. The authors suggest that horses may suppress flight responses when escape is not possible, and that this suppression is a known contributor to the development of abnormal behaviours and adverse physiological health.

2. Invisible stress: Learned helplessness looks like compliance
When horses (like other animals, including humans) face prolonged, inescapable stress, they are vulnerable to “learned helplessness.” This term was originally coined by Martin Seligman (1968), who conditioned dogs to jump over a barrier at the sound of a bell, alerting them that the floor would soon be electrically charged. When Seligman then charged floors on either side of the barrier so that the dogs could not escape the shock, they eventually ignored the warning bell, whimpered and lay down on the charged floor. When the escape route was reintroduced the dogs remained inert, even though physiological measures indicated that they were highly distressed.

Hall and colleagues (2008), who studied this state in horses, suggest that learned helplessness is a logical adaptation to inescapable aversive conditions. When behaviours have no impact on consequences, there ceases to be any motivation to try novel strategies. It becomes maladaptive, however, because it generalizes to other aspects of horses’ behavioural repertoire, and results in adverse welfare indicators such as ulcers, weight loss and abnormal behaviours, such as cribbing, weaving or stall walking.

Andrew MacLean (2009) notes that what trainers may mistake as obedience and successful training, may, in fact, be a horse who has given up trying to escape from relentless conflicting pressure. When the discipline requires a “flat affect,” such as western pleasure horses, show hunters, or “bombproof” school horses, a state of learned helplessness is often considered not only normal, but desirable.

3. The new normal: when distress becomes the norm
It also appears that regularly working with stressed horses desensitizes us such that abnormal behaviours become the new normal. Stereotypies, such as weaving or cribbing, are behaviours that are exhibited in an invariant, repetitive sequence and appear to serve no obvious purpose. Precipitated by intense management practices of confinement, isolation and diets high in quality, but low in quantity, they are almost certainly indicative of compromised welfare. They have never been observed in feral horses and are thought to be “the disease of domestication” (Marsden, 2002).

In a study of 373 horses in 26 riding schools, Lesimple and Hausberger (2014) had caretakers complete questionnaires about the occurrence of specific stereotypies (e.g. cribbing, weaving, flank biting, tongue playing, etc.). Monitoring horses for three consecutive days, trained observers then recorded the occurrence of all stereotypies. Lesimple found large discrepancies between what caretakers believed (five per cent prevalence) and what the researchers observed (37 per cent prevalence). This discrepancy was evident not only for milder stereotypies such as tongue playing, but also for more obvious and maladaptive stereotypies. Trained observers noted 23 per cent of horses weaving, but only eight per cent were identified by caretakers!

Lesimple notes that caretakers’ consistent underestimation of these poor welfare indicators mirrors that found in health care practitioners who tend to underestimate the severity of patients’ pain (Hirsh et al., 2011), and are less accurate at identifying facial expressions of pain than those without health care experience. (Prkachin et al., 2004). As with health care practitioners, Lesimple found that greater exposure exacerbated this effect. The higher the prevalence of stereotypies at a given stable, the less likely caretakers were to see it. In the stable where stereotypies reached 70 per cent, the discrepancy between caretaker reports and objective measurements was the greatest.

4. Tolerance is not happiness: The absence of signs of stress may not be well-being
Where the presence of stereotypies may be an accurate marker of “bad-being,” we cannot assume that other horses in the same environment without stereotypies are experiencing “well-being.” Stereotypies are thought to be involved in endorphin release and thus provide a buffering effect in an uncontrollable adverse environment. Some researchers have suggested that fellow stablemates that lack the stereotypic coping mechanisms, may actually be worse off. As Jones and McGreevy note: “Animal welfare legislation makes it possible to prosecute people who carry out acts that are … cruel to animals, but it does not make it a legal requirement that all animals have good welfare (2010).”

While horses may learn to tolerate any number of undesirable conditions or training practices, this does not necessarily translate into joy. And a lack of happiness can be reflected in a poor attitude and poor biomechanics which, in turn, can lead to muscle soreness, reduced performance and even illness.

If we really do aspire to develop the “happy equine athlete” then we need to recognize that our subjective assessments are prone to error. As equine scientist Natalie Waran cautions, “We cannot make assumptions that our horses are happy because we are enjoying ourselves” (2015).

In our daily riding and management practices there is much we can do to more accurately assess horses’ well-being and concrete strategies we can implement to enhance it. See page 56 for some practical things you can do to boost your horse’s happiness.

THE SOCIAL FORAGER

Evolutionarily designed to spend 16 to 20 hours a day grazing over large territories, with sudden bursts of speed to flee real or perceived predators, the horse is not well-suited to modern management systems of confinement in stalls with small turn out areas for several hours a day, being served scheduled meals. Thwarting this innate desire to move compromises both physiological and psychological well-being. However, it is the solitary nature of today’s housing practices that exerts the greatest toll on these highly social animals. Housing horses in single stalls has been associated with physiological stress, ulcers and the development of stereotypic behaviours. In short, stalls are a great idea for humans and a very poor idea for horses.

Owners and facility managers are reluctant to turn horses out together (or to even let them touch between stalls or paddocks) for fear that they will injure one another. Horses, however, were designed to avoid confrontation and embrace affiliation. Fighting was a costly expenditure of resources, whereas making friends rather than foes ensured herd stability and survival. Group or paired turn out improves welfare, reduces housing costs, and almost never results in serious injury (Keeling et al., 2016; Ladewig, 2013).

Countless studies point to the fact that letting horses be the social, grazing animals they were designed to be is paramount to equine well-being. If group or paired turn out is not feasible in your stable, at least let them touch (through a grilled window between stalls, lowered stall dividers and removing electric wire between enclosures). In natural settings, horses choose their own friends. When we are making this choice for them, we should prepare to be wrong. Just as we do not always love the person who moved in next door, there may be some trial and error to find compatible neighbours.

USING SCIENCE TO IMPROVE TRAINING

The International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) promotes an objective understanding of the welfare of horses through applied research and the fundamental principles of learning theory. Equine scientists and ISES founders Andrew McLean and Paul McGreevy note that trainers and owners would benefit from a clearer understanding of how we use learning principles such as reinforcement, punishment, habituation and classical conditioning in our daily training.

Although many great coaches work humanely and effectively without any knowledge of learning science, much horse training originates from a culture that assumes the existence of horses’ agreeable (or disagreeable) nature and their willingness (or unwillingness) to please their rider. Rather than seeing horses’ responses as neither benevolent nor malevolent, but as a response to consequences (horses, like dogs, pigeons, rats, and humans, do what works and stop doing what does not work), we often believe that horses understand and share our training aspirations. We ascribe to them more sophisticated cognitive functioning than they likely possess, and may, subsequently, feel more justified in punishing them when they do not comply.

Equine scientists also encourage us to consider the mismatch between our expectations of our performance horses and what they were evolutionary designed to do. In fact, almost everything we demand of our horses runs completely counter to their evolutionary design. The fact that horses can learn to suppress their instinctive flight response is truly remarkable. They habitually do this so well that when they fall back on their “I’m outa here; where are my buddies?” evolutionary default, we are quick to judge this behaviour as a character flaw.

You may argue that my scientific stance diminishes the amazing partnership that we have with our horses and underestimates their emotional and cognitive capacity. However, I contend that a less romantic lens offers us the opportunity to know our horses better, to continually discover what they need for their psychological well-being, to ensure that it happens, and to work with them in a fair and understanding relationship.

UNDERSTANDING MORAL DISENGAGEMENT

Humans, for the most part, engage in practices that meet our moral standards and keep us feeling good about ourselves. However, according to psychologist Albert Bandura, our standards may be overridden by psychological devices that foster ‘moral disengagement.’ Through a gradual severance of self-censure we are able to tolerate increasingly uncomfortable acts of harm, often without awareness that our ethical line in the sand has shifted. Our high moral standards as a benevolent horse person remain intact even as we cause our horses to suffer.

• COGNITIVE REMODELING: We compare ourselves to others whose treatment is worse, or use sanitizing language that makes harmful conduct respectable such as “We had a bit of a conversation about that,” meaning that the horse was hit, spurred, and/or yanked repeatedly to punish an undesired behaviour.

• COGNITIVE DISTORTION: We diffuse responsibility onto others such as coaches, or minimize or deny the harmfulness of the practice saying things like “We only use bamboo poles for rapping. It doesn’t actually hurt him,” or, “He gets to do what he wants to do for 23 hours a day; for this hour, we are on my agenda!”

• DISTORTION OF CONSEQUENCES: We minimize, ignore, distort or disbelieve the harm we cause, making self-censure unnecessary. Many of the harmful effects of housing horses in solitary confinement are easily discredited, particularly since the negative impact is not always obvious.

• EMPATHIC DECAY: We blame the horse, reasoning that if he does not perform the desired behaviour it is justifiable to punish him.

Bandura notes that this cognitive restructuring of investing harmful behaviour with high moral purpose is a spectacularly powerful mechanism for disengaging moral control. It not only eliminates self-censure, but serves to validate immoral behaviour. In this way, we distance ourselves from our horse’s suffering, pursue our competitive goals with a clear conscience, and feel validated for doing so.

ASSESSING EQUINE HAPPINESS

The welfare of the horse as a “happy athlete” has become a widespread concern in many disciplines in recent years. “However, how successfully this can be achieved, given that there is little to no use of objective evidence regarding measures of positive emotions in horses … is currently debatable,” said University of Edinburgh’s professor Natalie Waran, an animal welfare specialist, at the recent International Society of Equitation Science conference in Vancouver, B.C.

Waran said research into positive emotions in humans showed that there were many different views on the causes of happiness, but most people agreed that being happy related to having pleasurable activities, good social relationships, feeling engaged in life and feeling as if life had meaning or purpose. Happiness, she said, was perceived as a positive state of mental well-being and correlated with having a good life. “Most horse owners would agree that when their horses are playing, or relaxing whilst sunning themselves in the company of their group-mates, it certainly appears as if their horses are happy or content. But how do we know this is the case?”

Developing approaches capable of systematically assessing positive states in field conditions is in the works for researchers, but what can the average owner do to assess their horse’s happiness?

“Happy horses tend to have healthy biomechanics,” said Karen Rohlf, author and creator of Dressage Naturally, a system combining partnership-based training with dressage. Their movement is relaxed, energetic and balanced – at ease in their own bodies.

“To achieve healthy biomechanics, we need to remember the ‘bio’ part. That this is a living, breathing creature with a heart and soul and very few choices in life. Whatever discipline we decide to do with our horse, we owe it to him to find a place of ease so he can be a happy athlete for many, many years.”

Body language to watch for when you are working with your horse, either ridden or on the ground includes:

  • stretched, level or naturally arched neck
  • loose under-neck muscles
  • soft eyes
  • blinking eyes
  • quiet, relaxed mouth
  • soft, forward ears
  • gently moving ears
  • relaxed, swinging back
  • free hindquarters (stepping well under)
  • soft tail

~ Karin Apfel

12 WAYS TO BOOST YOUR HORSE’S  HAPPINESS

1. Support your horse’s nature. Research is repeatedly proving that horses that live within herds in an outdoor environment where they can roam and eat freely are much happier and healthier in every aspect physically and mentally.

2. Find training methods that cause your horse to enjoy spending time with you. Greeting you at the gate (outside of feed time) and relaxing during grooming/tacking up are great measures of how your horse feels about his training. He will offer you his best if spending time with you is a pleasant experience for him. He will only offer you enough to stay out of trouble if he is continually avoiding punishment.

3. Allow your horse to say “no,” or “not yet,” or “never.” Some horses are not physically or mentally capable of handling certain sports or tasks. Level of natural ability should be taken into consideration.

4. Learn breathing exercises that you can use to help you relax, stay soft and grounded. Your breathing can influence your horse and assure him you are safe to follow. The safer a horse feels, the happier he feels.

5. Purchase tack that fits your horse’s unique shape. Moving under a saddle that fits comfortably with room to stretch, and in a bridle (bitted or not) that rests smoothly will allow your horse to feel happier about carrying a rider.

6. Spend time focussing on the use of your aids. Cues that are given gently, consistently and with the correct preparation will boost your horse’s confidence in his handler or rider, and, therefore, create a happier experience. It is completely possible to ride your horse with ounces rather than pounds of pressure in your reins and legs – this takes practice and patience.

7. Prepare yourself to take as much time as your horse needs to develop physically. This way, his mental well-being will not be compromised. Slow down or go back to simpler requests if your horse becomes tense. Forcing a horse to advance on a timeline is harmful. This is especially important to monitor if you hire someone to assist you with your horse’s training.

8. Show up in a good frame of mind. If you are feeling rushed or stressed, lower your expectation to a simpler task, or don’t bother getting on your horse that day. A relaxed, focussed energy is easily sensed and will be more readily accepted by your horse.

9. Take responsibility for the mental wellness of each horse you work with. When you prioritize a horse’s need to feel safe ahead of your own ambition, you will set him up to offer himself freely. Developing empathy for horses’ natural instincts will cause you to consider a broader picture. As Karen Rohlf, author and creator of Dressage Naturally says, “This starts with how we think about our horses, and how we interact with them in every circumstance. Fear, confusion and boredom work against a healthy, athletic dynamic.”

10. Film your training sessions. Look for moments when your horse shows signs of tension or discomfort when you review the footage. You will begin to see patterns where you can change your approach to develop a more relaxed session.

11. Learn some basic massage or body work. Use it before, during and after training sessions to increase your horse’s comfort and, therefore, happiness.

12. Invest in the best equipment, feed and care that you can afford. Health and comfort are the very minimum attention to their happiness our charges should receive from us.

~ Jessica Fobert, FreeReinHorsemanship.com