Can You Spot an Unhappy Horse?
Would you recognize an unhappy horse in a video?

You might be surprised. According to U.K. and Danish researchers, most horse people misunderstand horses’ expressions of negative emotions.

Such misunderstandings could lead to confusion and disagreements around training videos on social media. But more importantly, they’re concerning  horses’ welfare, said Catherine Bell, PhD, of the Equine Behaviour and Training Association (EBTA) near London, England.

“Perhaps the most common problems I find in my behavior work are those associated with a horse being pushed too far and the owner being unaware that the horse is too anxious or stressed to comply,” Bell said. “It’s the classic, ‘He’s not scared; he’s just being naughty or stupid.’ Owners commonly tend to wait for a horse to engage in dangerous behaviors, such as bucking, biting, or bolting, before they recognize there’s a problem. And by that point, it is a big problem.”

Analyzing Horses in Training videos online: a survey

Having noted this issue repeatedly, Bell decided to run a scientific survey of horse people online. She and her fellow researchers designed a Facebook-based questionnaire based on six videos of horses working in different disciplines, including ridden dressage, in-hand dressage, natural horsemanship, bridleless riding, Western reining, and behavioral rehabilitation.

Nearly 200 participants responded to questions related to horses’ affective states. For each video, they were asked if they’d like their horse to be treated that way and to choose from a list of 13 emotions the ones they believed applied to that horse. Those emotions included being angry, anxious, conflicted, excited, fearful, frustrated, playful, relaxed, stressed, stubborn, submissive, switched off or resigned, and enjoying what was happening.

Survey respondents also scored themselves—on a scale of 1 to 4—on how well they thought they could recognize fear, stress, and anxiety in horses. In addition, they had the opportunity to comment on behavioral signs of equine emotions and about the horses in the videos.

Meanwhile, the researchers also requested the participation of six certified equine behavior specialists, who evaluated the affective state of the horses in the videos.

85% of Respondents Misinterpreted Signs of Negative Emotions

The equine behavior specialists agreed that all six horses in the videos were experiencing clear signs of negative affective state, Bell said. However, only a small percentage of survey respondents came to the same conclusion. More than 85% misinterpreted signs of negative emotions in at least one video.

In particular, respondents were more likely to incorrectly gauge the emotional state of horses in the natural horsemanship and bridleless riding videos, said Bell, which could be due to those disciplines’ general image.

“I think natural horsemanship and bridleless riding carry a sort of romantic image that many of us aspire to, with minimal tack, an absence of overt punishment, the horse appearing to choose to engage in behaviors with us, and an apparently lovely, playful relationship,” Bell said. “There’s also a lot of euphemistic language associated with the teaching of such methods that masks some of the more subtle, but nonetheless aversive and highly controlling, techniques that are involved.”

Age, Experience, Profession, and Confidence Didn’t Affect Results

Interestingly, said Bell, age, experience, self-scoring, and professional or amateur status had little bearing on the results. In fact, out of 40 professionals who took the survey, only 10 gave responses that were in line with the experts.

Likewise, having higher levels of experience made respondents less likely to recognize negative affective state in some of the videos, the researchers reported.

The only clear association with “right” answers was with respondents who identified themselves as clicker trainers, Bell said. Generally speaking, people selecting “clicker trainer” as their main equestrian activity tended to pick up on the negative affective states better than the average. However, those results need further investigation, she explained, as very few people identified as clicker trainers, and it’s possible that other clicker trainers were in the population but chose a different activity (because in the survey they could only choose one main equestrian activity).

Future Research and Self-Training Opportunities

This survey only looked at people’s ability to recognize negative affective state, but future studies might investigate their ability to recognize positive emotions in horses, Bell added.

The EBTA provides a “Ladder of Fear” webpage to help owners identify subtle signs of stress in annotated videos, she said.

In general, horse people should learn to be watchful for the kinds of “hints” horses give about negative emotions, said Bell. “Please pay attention to those little signs that your horse demonstrates to show that he is anxious/fearful/stressed about something,” she explained. “It is not ‘too soft’ if you allow him extra time to deal with stressors, and the horse is not ‘being dominant’ if he shows strong opinions about something stressful.”