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Assessing happiness in horses

How can you tell your horse is happy and what are alarming signs that hes not?

There’s a huge misunderstanding or let’s say underestimation in judging behavior in horses.

Horses, as any other mammal species, have a repertoire of natural behaviors that has been studied and documented. This is called an ethogram.

This ethogram helps us to define and judge behavior from an objective perspective and avoid anthropomorphism - and therefore determine health and happiness. Because as soon as we recognise behavior that is outside or conflicting with the ethogram and the documented context, it becomes a warning signal for welfare.

This is nothing new but unfortunately, in the past and mostly out of missing knowledge, the equestrian community mostly puts these warning signs into the “naughty” and “quirks” category of a horses personality - and does nothing about it.

While in fact these conflicting behaviors are human and context made and often a sign of suffering for the individual horse and therefore a huge amount of pleasure and sport horses in our human made world.

Health and happiness always start with living conditions, the stable management and design of the livery.

There is no discussion whether horses can be stalled individually or not - they are and always will be free roaming, social herd animals that need to do exactly that. In particular cases, which are not as common as a lot people claim to be, we can talk about confining horses for medical or safety reasons, but that’s mostly when something has been gone wrong in the past already.A healthy, social horse can and should live outside within a group.

If a particular stable or paddock didn’t work out for your horse, it’s maybe not your horse but the management of that stable - or how you handled it. It might be uncomfortable to hear but it’s more uncomfortable for your horse to be misunderstood and misjudged in his basic needs.

Within that group (and free acces to forage, fresh water etc), your horse should show signs of comfort behavior, like relaxed rolling in sand or dust every now and then, practising social grooming, playing like running around once in a while and exploring the area, new objects, sounds and smells in a calm and confident way.

He or she should a have buddy and friend to hang out with regularly and share the space in a closer proximity than with others.

There should be minimal agonistic behaviors like threatening face expressions, squeaking or driving away of others.

Scratches and marks on the coat from other horses should be just about bold spots every now and then and no bleeding wounds or worse.

And what are the scientific signs of discomfort?

Behaviors that can appear at any time but out of context or “where they not belong”, that might be a starting point of problem behaviors, or abnormal behaviors, that however are a sign of management mistakes:

  • Clapping lips

  • Playing with the tongue

  • Chewing wood

  • Licking on things

  • Hasty eating

  • Biting bars

  • Grinding teeth on the bars

  • Chewing empty

  • Cribbing

  • Weaving

  • Walking in circles

  • Pawing

  • Stamping

  • Kicking the walls

  • Threatening herd mates

  • Yawing outside of tiredness

  • Head shaking

  • Head or tail scrubbing

None of these behaviors are quirks.

They have nothing to do with a personally trait or temperament.

They are signs of physical or psychological discomfort and need to be addressed as such. Urgently.

If you observe a problem behavior in your horse, try and find the source of its discomfort immediately before it gets manifested. If there are more horses at your place displaying such, I’d rather recommend you to find a new place where the 3 F’s (forage, friends and freedom) are a given within a well organised and designed paddock system.

Once a problem behavior gets repetitive, it probably won’t go away anymore and that means restrictions for your horses future live in health and happiness. Especially behaviors as cribbing and weaving can have great negative effects on various systems in your horses body and cause long term damage. So even in the best circumstances and living conditions, a cribber will stay a cribber. Trying to break or get rid of steroptyical behavior that already is manifested can cause even more stress for the horse. Make sure you see the early signs to intervene in time before its to late.

Big risk factors for cribbing and weaving (and other stereotypical behaviors) are stress in training, stress around feeding times, lack of forage, solitary confinement and therefore boredom, lack of social interactions, anxiety and depression.

In a study from 2016 they found 7 additional risk factors for behavioural problems:

  1. Being ridden with short reins

  2. Being stalled on wood shavings instead straw

  3. Being fed hay just once a day

  4. Being stalled in a small box (ca. 3x3m)

  5. Having no window or opening to look outside

  6. Being turned out alone

  7. Breeds with ‘higher energy’ (e.g. warmblood vs. Pony)

Additionally, high work load with difficult exercises and high grain and sugar loaded feed have been found to be connected to stereotypical behaviors, especially cribbing.

There are tons and thousand of videos on the internet of horses displaying stereotypical behaviors, most of them for making jokes and fun. And it breaks my heart, because how else can a horse let us now they are suffering if not “behaving differently”?

Behind these changes of behavior are real mental struggles, often pain or severe stress. And they can’t do anything about that themselves. We put them here. We built this world. Don’t let them suffer in silence.

Let’s share and communicate these signs, actively look out for and seek those comfort behaviors. Let’s make them happy. Let’s heal the horse and human relationship by learning, listening and growing together.

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