Thoroughbred Broodmares Grazing in Pasture

Most people wish for a good quality of life for themselves and their families, and people will go to extraordinary lengths to live their best life. But what about our horses? What is a good life for a domestic horse, who has little control over his environment and lifestyle, and how do we know we’re providing horses with what they need to enjoy a good quality of life?

Natalie Waran, PhD, professor of One Welfare at the Eastern Institute of Technology, in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, addressed these questions during a presentation at the International Society for Equitation Science’s virtual meeting in August.

“The concept of happiness has rarely been defined in animals, and the assessment of positive emotions in horses remains fairly objective due to the little research in the area,” she said. “Horse behavior is often interpreted based on anthropocentric beliefs, risking the use of inappropriate practices because the true emotional state of the horse is missed, misunderstood, or mishandled.”

Why Should We Care?

After the publication of the Five Freedoms in the 1960s, the field of animal welfare and research emerged. “There is now agreement that welfare or well-being is a multidimensional phenomenon based on life experiences and circumstances and characterized as much by how an animal feels as how it functions,” Waran explained.

Public concern for animals has increased in recent decades, as well. “There is a growing demand to justify how we keep, treat, and use animals for our own needs,” she said. “The horse occupies an interesting niche, being neither a pet nor for the most part a production animal (livestock).”

Social media and the ability to spread and access information quickly online has put equine welfare under closer scrutiny than ever. In turn, equine sports’ social license to operate has also been put at risk. So, if we want to continue having horses for pleasure as well as sport, said Waran, we must address public concerns regarding quality of life and challenge existing training and management norms.

How to Measure Quality of Life

Many factors affect a horse’s quality of life, from how he was handled early on to its current living situation to his physical health and ability to socialize with other horses.

“All of these external factors will impact different individuals in different ways at any one time, and they will provoke a different emotional response,” explained Waran. “The problem is measuring feelings or gaining insight into the private mental state of an individual is extremely challenging, even in humans.”

In addition, she said, we tend to be far better at recognizing negative states in horses, such as stress or pain, than positive ones. And an absence of negative states doesn’t necessarily mean the horse is enjoying a good quality of life.

While the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has been promoting the concept of the “happy equine athlete” in competition and training since 2004, it too relies more heavily on indicators of negative emotions than positive ones. These include behaviors such as tail swishing, teeth grinding, tension, flight responses, sticking out the tongue, getting the tongue above the bit, etc.

“Judging whether the horse is happy in relation to the absence of negative behavior responses is arguably inefficient and insufficient,” Waran said. “We have a way to go before we can be sure an equine athlete is happy, but we need to tackle this if we’re going to enjoy the privilege of riding our horses.”

The way to tackle this, she said, is by developing evidence-based methods of assessing quality of life that allow horses to make choices as they wish.

“To understand what’s important to horses, we need to carry out studies that provide us with convincing information that tells us about their informed choices,” Waran explained. “That will help us understand behaviors, postures, and movements that will be useful measures for understanding that animal’s point of view. This approach using operant learning relies on horses making associations between their choices and the consequences.”

In 2014 Norwegian researchers, for instance, developed a communication system that allows a horse to express his desire to wear a blanket in cold weather. Studies like this give horses the opportunity to make informed choices and give us insight into the world through their eyes, said Waran.

Production animal researchers have developed an array of behavior tests to assess housing, handling, and transportation preferences in pigs and hens. While underutilized in horses, “they’ve got huge potential for understanding the relative significance of certain resources not only for horses in general but for individual horses so we have better chance of providing for their welfare needs,” Waran said.

Equine researchers are, however, in the early stages of making objective, systematic assessments of behavioral expression based on certain eye movements and facial expressions.

“This ‘trust your eye’ approach to assessing demeanor is an extremely useful and forward-thinking way for us to be able to recognize and interpret what the horse might actually be enjoying or not,” Waran added.

The Challenges We Face

The obstacles we still need to overcome before we can determine whether a horse has a good life and is in a positive emotional state, said Waran, include:

  • Challenging training and management practices that are accepted and considered normal (e.g., tight nosebands, stall confinement) but aren’t in the best welfare interest of the horse. Researchers need to provide convincing evidence to shift this baseline.
  • A lack of owner objectivity about their horse’s welfare, because of their close relationship with the horse and vested interest in the outcome (e.g., an owner who is highly motivated to keep a horse competing even when it’s showing signs of stress or pain).
  • Owners’ anthropomorphic perception of what a horse is feeling or experiencing (e.g., “my horse is bored, jealous, sad, etc.”).
  • Little funding available to study equine emotions.
  • The challenge in identifying reliable indicators with which to make objective assessments. “There are only so many ways horses can respond to stimuli, so we often see same behaviors performed in different contexts, where the meaning of the behavior will be interpreted differently,” Waran explained.

Take-Home Message

A horse with a good quality of life will arguably be healthier, perform better, and be safer to handle. To ensure our horses have good lives, however, we need objective tools that can be used in the real world. While we’ve gained some ground on this front through increased awareness about equine welfare and preliminary tests for assessing behavioral expression, Waran acknowledges we still have a way to go.

“By bringing science to the paddock or stable, we will help owners make effective changes to their horses’ lives that will ensure they are maintained in a more positive welfare state, because owners can then recognize what that positive welfare state looks like,” said Waran. “This, in turn, will enable owners to recognize early signs of potential problems and to make early interventions before horse welfare is compromised, ensuring the horse is not just safer to handle and can perform to its full potential but that it’s able to enjoy a good life.”