Can we tell if a horse is happy?

How confident can we be in our assessment that a horse is happy?
How confident can we be in our assessment that a horse is happy?

Is it possible to tell if a horse is a happy athlete?

The University of Edinburgh’s Professor Natalie Waran discussed the issue with delegates at the recent International Society of Equitation Science conference in Vancouver, Canada. She suggested more work needed to be done to answer the question objectively.

“Ever since the phrase, ‘the happy athlete’ was introduced into the FEI rules for dressage, there have been discussions about what this actually means and if it is possible to recognize and reward happiness in horses,” said Waran, an animal welfare specialist.

There has been considerable research into the recognition of negative emotions such as pain, fear and stress in horses, she noted. Recently, several studies had attempted to examine the choices that horses make and how they may express pleasure.

Waran said she was working on a paper that examined the results of recent work in the area, and the challenges such research posed not only in relation to the science, but also to the use of horses for recreation and sport.

“Putting the welfare of the horse as a ‘happy athlete at the heart of everything we do’ is one of the main values quoted as part of various countries’ strategic dressage plans,” she noted.

“However, how successfully this can be achieved, given that there is little to no use of objective evidence regarding measures of positive emotions in horses in dressage judging and training, is currently debatable.”

Waran noted that several authors had rather controversially posed the difficult question of whether a horse needed to be happy to perform a high-scoring dressage test.

“For those interested in the study of equine behaviour, the use of a subjective measures for assessing horse behaviour and performance is interesting in that this approach suggests that horse trainers, riders and judges feel that there are horse emotions that can be accurately assessed through observation of the horse at work and during competition.

“Yet how confident can we be with this notion and is there evidence that happiness and, indeed, any other positive emotions are expressed in a recognisable and universally agreed way that can be measurable in our horses?”

Waran said research into positive emotions in humans showed that there were many different views on the causes of happiness, but most people agreed that being happy related to having pleasurable activities, good social relationships, feeling engaged in life and feeling as if life had meaning or purpose. Happiness, she said, was perceived as a positive state of mental wellbeing and correlated with a having a good life.

“Most horse owners would agree that when their horses are playing, or relaxing whilst sunning themselves in the company of their group-mates, it certainly appears as if their horses are happy or content. But how do we know this is the case?”

Research into positive emotions in domestic animals can give us some clues, she said, suggesting that a positive emotional state in animals can be judged by measuring certain behavioural indicators, such as levels of play, connected behaviors and, for some species, the use of specific vocalisations and even changes in facial expression.

Researchers Rebecca Sommerville and Sara Hintze, in a poster presentation at the conference, examined similar themes as they related to the world’s working equids.

They noted that animal welfare science had focused mainly on how to reduce negative experiences such as pain and suffering, thereby neglecting emphasis on the importance of the positives.

However, in recent years there had been a surge of interest in how to assess and promote positive experiences.

Sommerville, a welfare assessment development officer with the working-animal charity The Brooke, and Hintze, from the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern in Switzerland, suggested that advancing the focus on positive welfare would require further assessment of positive states.

This, they said, was difficult because positive experiences were innately subjective and less conspicuous through behaviour.

The pair outlined recent and ongoing research that examined facial expressions, body language and behaviours indicative of positive experiences in horses and donkeys.

Promising emerging methods included behaviour assessment based on the assumption that we can infer how an animal felt from body language and dynamic interaction with the environment.

To date, welfare assessment protocols for working animals had focused on indicators of poor welfare, which pointed to lameness, wounds and malnourishment being widespread.

“We propose that it is simultaneously possible to promote positive experiences, in and amongst our efforts to reduce suffering, thereby improving overall quality of life,” they said.

Developing approaches capable of systematically assessing positive states in field conditions would enable the Brooke to fully assess and promote the welfare of working equids, they added.

“Existing monitoring tools could be modified to record whether animals are given opportunities to experience positive emotions, such as through rest periods and grazing,” the pair suggested.

Working equids in poor communities around the world suffered from serious welfare problems and reducing suffering therefore remained crucial. “We suggest that even under these tough conditions, promoting and evaluating positive experience is possible and important to improve the overall quality of life of these animals.”

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