horse emotions

A horse with a sense of humor. The grumpy old broodmare. The perpetually mischievous pony. Equestrians use countless emotionally charged phrases to describe their horses. So it might come as no surprise that, in a recent study, researchers determined that many owners are convinced that horses are capable of emotions—sometimes even complex ones.

The paradox, however, is that even though people have these beliefs and know their own actions can affect these emotions, they continue to act in ways that cause presumably negative emotions in horses, said researcher Maria J. Hotzel, PhD, of the Federal University of Santa Catarina Laboratory of Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare, in Florianópolis, Brazil.

“We know people regard animals in general as sentient, and that has been shown all over the world,” she said. “But what was interesting is that through many of the examples our survey participants gave us of why they think a horse can be happy, jealous, or sad, they let us know that they are aware that things owners and caretakers do (or do not do) to their animals lead to these emotions.”

In Hotzel and colleagues’ survey of nearly 700 Brazilian equestrians and equine professionals:

  • 94% of respondents said they believe horses are capable of feeling pain;
  • 92% believe they can feel fear;
  • 77% believe horses feel joy;
  • 65% believe they feel boredom; and
  • 41% believe they can feel jealousy.

Participants also had the opportunity to describe examples of ways they’ve seen horses express emotions, Hotzel said. Most of the participants filled in this optional section with precise descriptions of horses’ body language, vocalizations, facial expressions, and even efforts to consciously communicate with humans (“He came up to me and ’showed’ that he was injured, tilting his head,” for example).

“We were pleased to see that horse owners and caretakers seem to reflect a lot about the behavior of their horses and what it may mean in terms of the horses’ emotional states,” Hotzel said. “We expected people to answer the ‘easier’ question, which was to describe an example of a situation that causes pain to horses.” (Most cited colic, but many mentioned saddle fit, bits and spurs, lameness, trauma, castration, and branding, among others.)

“They also described a variety of behaviors that they believed to express pain as well as many other emotions,” she said. This reveals real observation and sympathy toward their horses, Hotzel explained.

She added it’s a good thing when human interactions—such as feeding or gentle grooming—cause positive emotions. However, actions such as socially isolating a horse or exposing him to fearful situations cause him to have negative emotions. Many equestrians tend to accept these situations as part of domestic horse life, she added.

“Some management practices that may cause negative emotions to horses are so common in the equestrian environment that people do not perceive them as causes of affective, emotional, or welfare problems for horses,” Hotzel said. “We are aware of this paradox, and we are interested in further understanding why this happens, to help change it.”

While the study focused only on equestrians in Brazil, Hotzel said she expects results to be similar throughout the world. “People in general believe that animals … deserve to have a life that leads to good feelings and avoids negative feelings,” she said. “We have no reason to believe that people in different countries would see horses as more or less sentient. What may be different across cultures is how important it is to give animals a good life.”

The knowledge gained from this study could lead to more targeted education programs based on the beliefs people already have, as well as new laws affecting equine welfare, said Hotzel.

“We want to explore what factors, especially cultural, influence the decisions, choices, and behaviors of ‘horse people’ regarding horse management,” she said. “Additionally, we believe that scientists can find inspiration in some of the examples given by people that have a lot of experience with horses to test some hypotheses reading the ability of animals to have complex affective states. That is important to help support social, regulatory, and legislative changes to improve the lives of horses.”

The study, “Exploring horse owners’ and caretakers’ perceptions of emotions and associated behaviors in horses,” was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.