As we start off the new year with our horses, there’s one resolution we should all strive to keep: to have happy equine athletes. That goal is now more realistic, thanks to a British equitation science research team’s work to better understand what defines a "happy" equine athlete..

Spurred by the "happy equine athlete" concept the Fédération Equestre Internationale introduced several years ago, Carol Hall, PhD, and Nia Huws, PhD, both of Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K., developed a "happy equine athlete" evaluation test by preparing 2-minute-long videos of 10 different ridden horses. They then asked individuals–including professors and researchers, qualified dressage judges, professional riders and trainers, veterinary practitioners, and recreational (nonprofessional) riders–to score each horse on different measures that could relate to perceived happiness. Hall presented those results at the 2012 International Society for Equitation Science conference.

On the whole, everyone seemed to agree on which horses were happy and which ones were not, according to Hall. "This indicates that there is a general consensus regarding the behavior of horses deemed to be ‘happy’ in their work," she said. Even so, a follow-up study involving professionals only and including physiological measures (such as heart rate), suggested discrepancies between professional opinions and the measurements. (Editor’s note: Stay tuned to The Horse for more about that follow-up study.)

Hall noted that it’s important to not just subjectively view horses as "happy" or not, but to develop objective criteria for being able to consistently recognize the signs of happy–and unhappy–horses. And it’s not just professionals that need to recognize them, she added.

Hall, Huws, and fellow researchers therefore created a "wikispace" website as a visual, interactive, and educational resource for everyone in the horse industry. On the website people can view various videos displaying specific ridden horse behavior–both positive and negative–and read expert evaluations of them. Wikispace members can also participate in the discussion by adding their own opinions, Hall said. They can even upload their own videos for evaluation and monitored discussion.

So, will it be a "happy new year" for your horse? Equitation scientists hope that riders worldwide will soon be able to recognize the cues that can tell them whether, this year, their horses really are as happy as they’re wishing them to be.