“The concept of happiness has rarely been defined in animals, and due to the paucity of study in the field, assessing pleasant feelings in horses remains very objective,” she said. “Horse behaviour is frequently interpreted based on anthropocentric assumptions, putting the horse’s genuine emotional state at risk of being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or mishandled.”
Why Should We Be Concerned?
Animal welfare and research became popular after the publication of the Five Freedoms in the 1960s. “There is now widespread consensus that welfare or well-being is a multifaceted phenomena dependent on life experiences and circumstances, characterised as much by how an animal feels as it is by how it functions,” Waran explained.
In recent decades, public concern for animals has also grown. She stated, “There is an increasing urge to explain how we retain, treat, and exploit animals for our own needs.” “The horse fills an unusual niche, as it is neither a pet nor, for the most part, a livestock producer.”
Equine welfare is being scrutinised more than ever before thanks to social media and the capacity to instantly distribute and access information online. As a result, equine sports’ social permission to function has been jeopardised. So, if we want to keep horses for pleasure and sport, we must address public concerns about quality of life and question conventional training and management conventions, according to Waran.
How to Assess Life Quality
A horse’s quality of life is influenced by a variety of circumstances, including how he was raised, his present living condition, his physical health, and his ability to socialise with other horses.
“At any given time, all of these external influences will impact different individuals in various ways, and they will elicit a distinct emotional response,” Waran stated. “The issue is that gauging feelings or obtaining insight into an individual’s private mental state is incredibly difficult, even in humans.”
Furthermore, we are significantly better at distinguishing negative feelings in horses, such as stress or discomfort, than positive states, she added. And the absence of negative states does not always imply that the horse is living a happy existence.
While the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has promoted the concept of the “happy horse athlete” in competition and training since 2004, it, too, places a greater emphasis on signs of negative emotions than good emotions. Tail swishing, teeth grinding, tension, flight reflexes, thrusting out the tongue, getting the tongue above the bit, and other behaviours are examples.
“Judging whether the horse is happy based on the lack of negative behaviour reactions is potentially inefficient and inadequate,” Waran added. “We have a long way to go before we can be certain that an equine athlete is content, but we must address this if we are to enjoy the privilege of riding our horses.”
She believes the best approach to address this is to establish evidence-based methodologies for assessing quality of life that allow horses to make their own decisions.
“We need to do studies that offer us with convincing information that tells us about their informed choices in order to understand what is essential to horses,” Waran explained. “This will help us comprehend behaviours, postures, and movements that will be important indicators of that animal’s point of view. Horses make linkages between their decisions and the outcomes in this operant learning approach.”
In 2014, for example, Norwegian researchers developed a communication system that allows a horse to convey his desire to wear a blanket when it’s cold outside. According to Waran, studies like this allow horses to make informed decisions and provide us with insight into the world through their perspective.
Pig and hen behaviour tests have been created by production animal researchers to determine housing, handling, and transit preferences. While horses are underutilised, “they offer great promise for understanding the relative value of particular resources not only for horses in general but for individual horses so we can better provide for their welfare needs,” Waran added.