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Happy Horses: Why are positive emotions such as happiness relevant for training and competition?

Professor Natalie Waran

Although the debate about whether animals have emotions similar to humans has been topical for centuries, scientists have traditionally been reluctant to investigate what was thought to be an unscientific area until relatively recently. However, most horse owners agree that when their horse’s is playing or relaxing whilst sunning themselves in the company of their group-mates, it certainly appears as if their horse is happy or content. Researchers are now investigating whether we can be sure that this is the case.

Ever since the phrase, ‘the happy athlete’ was introduced into the FEI rules for dressage used in judging the qualitative aspects of top - level training and tests – there has been discussions about what this actually means and if it is possible to recognize and reward for it. In fact, a number of writers rather controversially have posed the difficult question of whether a horse needs to be happy to do a high scoring dressage test. For those interested in the study of equine behaviour, the use of a subjective measure for assessing horse behaviour and performance, is interesting in that it suggests that horse trainers, riders and judges feel that there are emotions that can be accurately assessed by 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 other positive emotions are expressed in a recognizable and agreed way that can be measurable in our horses?

Research into Equine Positive Emotions is essential if we are to recognise and promote these within training and performance

Research into positive emotions in humans tells us that there are many different views on the causes of happiness but most people agree that being happy relates to having pleasurable activities, good social relationships, feeling engaged in life and feeling as if life has meaning or purpose. Happiness is perceived as a positive state of mental wellbeing and is correlated with a having a good life.

It is now widely accepted that good welfare is not simply the absence of negative experiences, but rather is primarily the presence of positive experiences such as pleasure. Animal welfare assessment has traditionally relied on measures of negative states such as pain, distress, fear and discomfort. More recently, the question of the importance of positive emotions as part of the overall assessment has started to be asked. This interesting question comes with certain challenges; what evidence is there for these emotions in species other than humans, can we agree what they are in non-human animals and can they be measured?

What we do know is that most horse owners agree that they can tell when their horse is not feeling so well. They recognize depressed levels of activity, the horse’s posture and lack of engagement with the owner and the immediate environment. There are also facial indicators that are currently being validated that may be useful for assessing whether a horse is experiencing pain. However, when it comes to positive emotions, such as those humans call happiness, contentment, pleasure and even feeling loved – we are in the very early stages of being able to objectively describe them and then decide if our horses are experiencing them.

Being able to find agreed and recognizable objective assessments of positive emotions in horses is important since this would allow human caretakers to provide resources that horses find pleasurable, thus actively promoting positive welfare or a good quality of life. Something that all horse owners want to achieve for their animals.

So is there evidence to support the presence of positive emotions in animals?

We now know that similar central and peripheral neural mechanisms which are involved in emotion in humans are also found in animals, and indeed we know that many animals will actively seek resources and situations which we assume provide them with a pleasurable experience, and will avoid situations that might be assumed to be negative. Early studies using rats wired to an apparatus examining brain responses to food, social contact and other things that were thought to be positive, show that rats will actively press levers to have electrical stimulation to those parts of the brain that are thought to be associated with experiencing the emotion called pleasure in humans.

There are also clear survival advantages to seeking positive experiences. For example, displaying behaviours indicative of positive emotions such as relaxation or pleasure, during affiliative (friendly) or social behaviours like mutual grooming may serve to tell other horses that what they are doing is correct and encourage them to continue, perhaps immediately positively reinforcing the behaviour that otherwise only has long-term benefits such as helping to keep the skin and coat clear of external parasites. Horses learn through reward or reinforcement – and things that are positive are likely to be associated with the memory of a positive emotion, so that they can be sought out again.

How can we make sure our horses are happy?

Promoting positive emotions that may help in providing horses with a better quality of life is something most of us want to be able to do. Most horses kept in the UK are extremely well cared for, however there are a number of restrictions on the horse in terms of expression of its normal behaviour that might impact negatively on the horse’s quality of life. Finding ways to allow horses to perform more of what they have evolved to do is one way to avoid inflicting a possible negative state. For example, giving horses as much time in a well fenced paddock with sufficient space to move freely and express different paces and behaviours, and in the company of familiar horses – will go a long way to inducing a positive welfare state. Feeding a good diet including long stemmed fibre to allow horses to spend time feeding in as natural way as possible, and to experience the comfort associated with being well fed, ensures that they are mentally and physically well.

A Gentle rub or scratch can mimic the action horses use in mutual grooming and is associated with a lower heart rate

Measuring positive emotions in horses:

In humans, as with negative emotions such as pain and sadness, it has proved difficult to measure happiness. For animal’s its even more challenging when dealing with non-verbal humans and animals. For humans with speech, we rely on them telling us how they feel and can rate happiness on tried and tested scoring scales. In fact there are often ‘tables’ produced of the happiest cities where people have the best quality of life based on people who were surveyed ranking their home town according to standardized criteria. Recent work into happiness in animals, has determined that in order to try to work out whether animals are experiencing a better quality of life the most promising behavioural indicators appear to be levels of play, affiliative behaviors and for some species, use of certain vocalizations. Work from Edinburgh has looked at defining the presence of certain positive emotions using a qualitative behavioural assessment system. In this situation a range of people are asked to describe the behavioural expression of an animal (what they think it is feeling), and then researchers look for how much agreement there is between these descriptions for the same animal. This coupled with more objective measures such as behaviour and physiological measures ( including heart rate variability), may provide a more robust method for deciding and agreeing upon what happiness in a horse might look like. Finally the use of facial feature changes are being investigated by a research group in New Zealand to try to work out if there are consistent facial markers that could indicate if the horse is experiencing a positive state of mind. Its early days and challenging, but the scientists seem confident there is some merit in this approach.

In horses, emotional expression is via body language, postures, vocalisations and facial movements. As humans positive emotions can be expressed via specific facial expressions such as smiling and laughter, also seen in primates and interestingly in laboratory rats (check out research on giggling rats) . Horse owners often use signals based on their experience of their individual horses and some of these include the quivering top lip associated with when a horse is being scratched by another horse during mutual grooming. This can also be stimulated by the owner scratching the wither area or grooming in certain areas of the horses body. Horses will often nicker to their owners – a soft rumbling sound used between familiar horses as well as between mare and foal following a period of separation. Although this sound is often stimulated by being paired with food – there is no doubt that horses recognise and seem pleased to see their familiar handlers/owners – and will often initiate contact and even solicit stroking or itching from their human carers.

Benefits of being a Happy horse:

Many authors writing about happiness in humans argue that positive emotions benefit long-term health and there are biological markers that can be used to show this. For example in one study it was shown that there was an association between human well-being and three biological markers: heart rate, cortisol and plasma fibrinogen levels (hormones used for measuring stress in humans and animals). Interestingly, the people who rated themselves the least happy had cortisol levels that were 48% higher than those who rated themselves as the ‘most happy’.

We don’t know whether being happy or content leads to the same results in horses. We do know that being stressed, and having high levels of cortisol circulating or showing lots of conflict behaviours are associated with lowered immune defense and a greater incidence of illness. So it seems that trying to find ways to keep our horse’s in a positive state of emotions is a good way to keep them both physically and mentally healthy. This of course will help to ensure that they can give of their best when being trained, ridden and competed and enable them to cope better with typically experienced physical stressors such as transportation to shows, mixing with unfamiliar field-mates and stabling.


‘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 British Dressage’s strategic plan. This is something that the majority of caring horse owners are keen on. However how easy this is given our current lack of objective evidence to support measures of positive emotions in horses, is debatable. Whilst there is no doubt that the exact degree of consciousness and cognitive ability in different animal species as compared to humans as well as the existence of specific types of emotions in animals will continue to be the subject of debate. Horse owners who care about giving their horses the highest quality of life, can be confident that providing their horses with more opportunities to express natural behaviour and keeping them free from the stresses associated with poor training and management, will go a long way to ensuring their positive welfare. Moreover, if we are lucky, this will enable them to be as happy as we are, when we spend our time with them.

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