Do Horses Like To Work?

Equine behavior experts say the answer depends on the work … and the horse.

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Do Horses Like To Work?
Horses’ facial expressions, how they hold their ears, and their body language can give us clues as to whether they enjoy their “jobs.” |
Sometimes, you get an eager, willing partner. She’s excited to see you; she comes right up to you in the field; she practically puts the halter on her own head. And the training session is great—both of you seem excited—apparently—and happy to be working.

But then you see horses that don’t want to be caught or that fight their riders to get back home to the barn or act “lazy,” like they don’t want to move.

And you have to wonder: Do horses actually like working?

An Ethical Question

With a growing emphasis on animal welfare, ethical dilemmas sometimes push the question of whether people should ride (or drive) horses. If horses would rather just be in the pasture living a serene life essentially free of human interference, what right do we have to make them work?

Putting aside the argument that horses should “earn their keep,” we’ve asked experts about how horses view work—and mainly, if they enjoy it.

Although few studies have focused on the question itself, many equine and equitation scientists believe, through personal, professional, and scientific experience, that horses can indeed like working. The caveat, though, is not all horses do—and it’s up to us to find out why and to make their working experiences better.

The Happy Carriage Horse Study

Researchers at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, in Mexico, say a preliminary study they’ve been working on suggests many carriage horses in the Yucatán region enjoy their work. They’ve spent long hours observing behavioral indicators of both positive and negative emotions in these working horses.

In particular, they noticed significant snorting—a recently identified clue to horse “happiness”—going on just before horses were hooked up to their tourist carriages, as well as right after the tourist trip itself. Their plans to observe horses during the tours themselves, however, were delayed because of COVID-19-related government restrictions and health issues within the team and among carriage drivers, says Pedro Geraldo González-Pech, PhD.

Even so, their early data show the horses frequently had their ears in a position that represents positive emotions—forward or relaxed and to the side—and that they blinked their eyes at rates that suggest positive emotions. Those findings, plus the increased snort rate, gave them the impression that, at least just before and after work, the horses seemed to enjoy what they were doing. While this doesn’t say how they feel about the work itself, it hints at it: They didn’t show negative emotions in anticipation of the work, nor in recovering from it.

As soon as COVID-19 restrictions lift and human health is restored, the team will jump back into this “crucial” work, says Gonzales-Pech. “(It’s important) to show solid evidence that working animals can have not only a good health and mental status but that they can also experience positive emotions while performing ‘work,’ or hedonic behaviors promoted by work activity,” he says.

Does Your Horse Like to Work? Well, Ask Him!

We don’t have to wonder whether horses like work, experts tell us. The answer, they say, is usually written all over their faces—and even their bodies. “Horses are like the great (French mime) Marcel Marceau,” Gonzales-Pech says. “They are always telling us something without words. Let’s learn to listen them.”

French behaviorist Léa Lansade, PhD, couldn’t agree more. “All riders, drivers, and handlers need to know how to recognize certain clues to how a horse is feeling,” says Lansade, a researcher in the French Horse and Riding Institute (IFCE) and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s (INRA) behavior science department, in Tours.

“Horses have a way of swishing their tails when they’re uncomfortable, and they are capable of multiple facial expressions that reveal both positive and negative emotions,” she says. “They also clearly show particular postures and behaviors related to fear.”

You can look for these signs when working your horse; they’re a telltale way to know if your horse is enjoying that particular work session, she says. Granted, scientists have a better handle on signs that horses are unhappy than signs they’re happy. But researchers are working on clues—such as snorting—that could indicate not just that a horse is accepting his work with no negative feelings, but that he’s actually enjoying it.

You can also run a simple test to find out if your horse likes the work you ask him to do, Lansade says. Choose one field or arena where you do one kind of work and another field or arena where you do a different kind of work. Then, let the horse guide you. Where does he want to go? His choice can tell you a lot about how he feels about different kinds of work.

Meanwhile, Lansade’s teammate, welfare science engineer Alice Ruet, PhD, based at the IFCE in Saumur, France, suggests we take time to look at horses in their stalls before and after working them. Their attitudes in the stall can reveal important information about how they feel about riding (and probably other kinds of work), she says.

“It’s not up to us to say if horses like their work or not,” says Lansade. “On the contrary, we have to ask them. And their responses will depend on each individual horse.”

The Right Job for the Right Horse

Scientists have evidence showing some horses are physically better at certain jobs than others—which isn’t surprising, given the generations of breeding efforts to develop the right dressage, reining, cutting, endurance, racing, pacing, or draft horse, among others. But physical ability is just one part of the job description, and research is still lacking on topics such as how personality or the horse-human relationship might correspond to each horse’s job.

That means even though we might do everything “right”—training, housing, and feeding horses with their utmost welfare in mind—they still might not like the job they’ve been given.

And once again, that comes back around to us, as we—sort of like a career counselor—have “conversations” with our horses about what works best for them.

“I believe that some (horses) very much do want to work, and some haven’t yet found the right job, and some maybe aren’t that motivated at all,” says Karen Waite, MS, PhD, Extension specialist at Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Sciences, in East Lansing.

“I do think there’s something for all of them, though.”

How do we find the right job for the right horse? It’s simple, really. We need to ask … and to understand the response.

“We just need to listen to them,” Waite says. “They’re all individuals.”


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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