We might think we know good equine welfare when we see it. But do we? A leading equitation scientist says it’s only when we get into a horse’s head and understand his emotional state can we really be sure of his welfare status.

“Is it okay to make the assumption that if the horse has what it wants and doesn’t have what it doesn’t want, he’s ‘happy’?” asked Natalie Waran, PhD, of the Eastern Institute of Technology, in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. “We’re still lacking reliable tools that help us understand what good welfare is from the horse’s point of view.”

Waran discussed the challenges of assessing equine emotional state during her plenary lecture at the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Historically, Waran said, scientists and industry leaders have tried to measure horse welfare according to his health status—whether he’s in pain. Over time, they began assessing whether his social needs were being met. But while these might be important things to consider, they still do not allow people to “ask the horses themselves,” essentially, how they are feeling. And that, she said, is critical for a true evaluation of equine welfare.

“The whole equine welfare picture involves behavioral, physical, emotional, and mental considerations, the last being the most difficult to access,” Waran said.

The Future of Equine Welfare Evaluation

Recent efforts to look into equine mental state still lack validation for use as a reliable tool, she said. For example, heart monitoring can tell how strong a horse’s emotions might be—but it won’t say whether those emotions are positive or negative. Eye temperature readings and cortisol rates can indicate stress levels, but they give limited information and can also be affected by physical stress, such as exercise. Lately, some scientists have been working on optimism tests, also known as “cognitive bias” tests, that show how optimistic or pessimistic a horse is. But research there is in its infancy and can’t yet be considered reliable.

Many scientists believe studying behavior gives better indicators of the equine emotional state, said Waran. “We’re much more comfortable with behavior,” she said. “We can see it. We rely on these responses in order to tell us whether horses want to avoid something.”

Taking that a bit further, some scientists are considering new “consumer approach” tests that would allow horses to choose “with their own hooves” what they want, and what they’re willing to “pay” for it, Waran said. For example, researchers have taught laying hens that by pressing a kind of button—requiring a certain amount of physical effort for each press—they can get a larger pen, more food, perches, or a dust bath. Applying such research to horses could help us realize how important some welfare aspects are from their point of view.

Not only do we need to get “into their heads,” she said, but we also need to “get into our heads” a new way of looking at equine welfare. We need to accept that it’s time to give it a definition that isn’t just based on what we ourselves see, she said. And that can lead to more reliable welfare research.

“The way you define something, like equine welfare, is going to affect the way you measure that,” Waran said. “When we’re assessing welfare in relation to how animals are performing, sometimes we get stuck on counting the spur marks on his sides. But the reality is that there is a whole heap of stuff that happened to get to those marks.”

As such, she said, it’s important to consider welfare across the span of the horse’s life, and not just in a singular moment. “When we’re assessing welfare state, we’re often assessing it one moment at a time, the picture right in front of us, which is a fairly short period of the animal’s life,” she said. “But every single horse’s life experience is different and will shape its individual responses and copes with challenges.”

In fact, that life experience can start earlier than we might think, she added. “The priming of the stress response happens before the animal is even born and can even be influenced by the stress responses of its grandparents,” she said. “Some we can influence, and some we don’t even know that we’re influencing.”

Redefining equine welfare from the horse’s perspective means evolving toward a concept of the value of that life, for that individual horse, Waran said. “We need to recognize that welfare isn’t one point in time but everything that makes up that broader picture, giving a view on the equine quality of life,” she said. “Is it a good life? A life worth living? A life not worth living? We really want to have good welfare, and that means good quality of life.”

Her research team is currently investigating aspects that should be incorporated into what they call the “Equine Quality of Life (EQoL) Framework.” This tool, still in its early stages of development, would be an “essential” guide providing horse owners, riders, and practitioners with “an evidence-based instrument for assessing the overall life experience of a horse,” Waran said.

As their research evolves, the EQoL Framework could help people in the industry ensure that they’re providing for the emotional needs of their horses—as defined by those most affected by those needs: the horses themselves.