Monday, 11 January 2016

Horse happiness

Heard from the horse show bleachers: “Now that’s a happy horse that loves his job.”
In 2004,  FEI introduced into its dressage rules the phrase “happy athlete” to describe the ideal dressage horse.
But judging a horse’s happiness remains fairly subjective.
In a recent blog, I wrote about horse unhappiness – describing the Horse Grimace Scale… the method scientists have developed to objectively recognize pain in horses.
So, can we objectively recognize happiness in riding horses? Not just the absence of tension, but genuine enjoyment?
It’s a question researcher Dr. Natalie Waran has been looking into, and she presented on the topic at the International Society of Equitation Science Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Here are some of her thoughts:
“Signs of negative emotions in horses have been well-studied and defined—we know behaviors such as tail swishing, teeth grinding, and kicking out can indicate pain, fear, and/or stress. But happiness is not just about the absence of negative emotions and behaviours”, said Waran.
“The few studies researchers have performed to investigate horses’ happiness suggest that play and mutual grooming are positive behavioral indicators of pleasure in horses. Other positive behavioral indicators might include a lowered neck position, a raised tail, a droopy lip, eyebrow wrinkles, and narrowed nostrils. Researchers have used measurements such as heart rate and respiratory rate as well as observations of horses’ preferences to come to these conclusions, but what each horse “likes” is going to differ.”
Waran feels that to ensure equine athletes have good welfare and their needs are being met, scientists need to find reliable objective measures of positive emotions in horses being ridden and trained so judges may have an objective way to recognize and reward these positive behaviors.
“We need to remain open-minded and not make assumptions that our horses are happy because we are enjoying ourselves,” she said.” Realistically, training and competition will pose some physical and psychological stress on our horses”.