Walk into any barn around the country and ask the first person you meet what happiness in a horse looks like, and you will get a myriad of different responses. 

Some horse owners think that keeping a horse outside 24/7 is cruel, while others argue that keeping a horse in a box or stall is akin to keeping prisoners in solitary confinement.

Horse welfare and happiness have been explored for centuries. Military commander Xenophon was one of the first to write about the topic in his ancient cavalry manual On Horsemanship, and during the fifteenth century crude handling or riding of horses was looked upon as a sign of ‘uncouthness’ and ‘bad education’.

Centuries later, during the Victorian period, Anna Sewell sought to show the world a horse’s point of view on life in her bestselling novel Black Beauty. This book was written from the perspective of a horse concerned with animal abuse. The novel was not written for children as many believe; instead Sewell wanted to send out a message to adults on the morality of exploiting animals. The book is widely credited with helping to change the way horses are cared for around the world.

As you can see, concern about horse happiness and wellbeing is not a new topic. Horse people have been pondering whether their horse is happy for thousands of years.

Cracking the Happiness Code

No two horses are exactly alike, which makes happiness difficult to measure. It is easy to draw conclusions with horses, both positive and negative. You may have heard that a horse sticking his head out of a stall to greet you is happy, but a pony biting or kicking out at his paddock pals is not. But since none of us can speak horse, so who is right?

Horses suffer considerable stress living in stalls. Several studies have shown us that horses kept in boxes for long periods of time are more susceptible to stomach disorders such as colic, gastric ulcers and intestinal inflammation than horse that live outside. A study of injured trotting horses in Sweden found that recovery was faster when horses lived outdoors compared to those kept in a warm and cozy stable.

Healthy horses often pick fights with their paddock companions(like the pony in the above example). As social creatures, they receive feel-good benefits when they experience play and mutual grooming sessions with their equine pals, even if it sometimes looks like they are roughing each other up, its usually just a bit of fun and rarely results in injury.

In a Swiss research paper published by the equine veterinary journal in 2008, it was found that 18% of equine injuries in horses occurred due to an abrupt change of management. This was regardless of whether the horse was kept inside a stable or turned out in a group. Rather than worrying about horses playing, we should actually be careful of HOW we make changes to our horses living environment. It is always best to err on the side of caution and take things very slowly.

The Five Domains: Is Your Horse Living His Best Life?

Although there’s no actual barometer for happiness in horses, there is a way to measure their welfare. And that’s kind of the same thing.

Behavior experts have been telling us for years that a horse can’t be happy unless his basic needs are met, so to understand happiness we need to look at the five freedoms model.

The Five Freedoms were first established by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1965, in response to concerns brought up in Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book Animal Machines.

This model has been used by veterinarians and animal welfare organizations such as the World Organization for Animal Health and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) for decades and was improved further by scientist David Mellor to ensure animals like horses enjoy a ‘life worth living’.

The five categories to evaluate your horse’s wellbeing physically, physiologically and psychologically:

  • Nutrition: Constant access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  • Environment: An appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Health: Injury and diseaseare prevented or rapidly diagnosed.
  • Behavior: Provided with sufficient space, proper facilities, and the company of the other horses.
  • Stress: Mental suffering is avoided or treated promptly.

The best way to understand if your horse is happy is by watching his behavior.

Horses that look relaxed are typically happy, the same goes with play. Only a genuinely happy horse will play, so if you see your horse playing in the field, you can rest easy.

Take note of any destructive behavior witnessed when your horses is turned out (like trying to break down a fence or escape) as this may be an indication of unhappiness. Body language, sociability and behavior under saddle are other important indicators of happiness.

By recognizing these telltale indicators (and the opposite), you can more accurately judge your horse’s wellbeing both now and in the future.


Author Cristina

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