How to tell if your horse is happy
Although every horse owner knows when to contact the vet, farrier or dentist, most haven’t considered what to do when the problem isn’t physical.
As part of everyday horse care, it is routine to look after your horse’s health and ensure his feet, teeth and back are in the best condition possible. However, although it is easy to measure physical attributes, many owners overlook psychological health. Having a happy horse is vitally important as it can benefit his confidence, mood and performance, as well as helping him to get more enjoyment out of everyday activities such as hacking and schooling.
The human effect
Although juggling work and looking after a horse can sometimes mean constantly rushing around, it is important to remember that horses can feel our energy levels as well as just responding to words and body language. Equine behaviourist Sophie Ostler stresses that horses are prey animals. “If horses sense we are hurrying them or getting impatient they pick up on this as a rushed energy, which translates to the ‘flight mode’. It is important to remain calm, as they look to us, the ‘heard leader’, for reassurance”.
Body language is key
To assess you horse’s happiness it is often useful to look at his body language during everyday handling – this can be a very good indicator of what he is feeling. “From a behavioural point of view, an unhappy horse will typically display certain signs,” says Sophie. Separation anxiety when leaving his field mates, a reluctance to stand still, or staring into the distance with head held high and a tense jaw are all elements to look out for. “When a horse is in this state it is important he is allowed to keep moving until his attention shifts to the handler,” Sophie points out. “If the horse is ‘made’ to stand still during this mental state he can feel trapped and it can activate his ‘flight’ mode, making his behaviour worsen”.
We are all part of a herd
Although a horse’s ‘unhappy’ behaviour may seem obvious, there are also many happiness indicators, too. A happy horse sees his owner as part of his heard, ideally the ‘heard leader’, and licking and chewing are signs of a horse submitting to your leadership. Other signs include being responsive and calm, a lowered head, soft eyes and relaxed jaw. A contented horse will seek affection from his owner and show respect by not invading their personal space. “Yawning is also a good sign,” says Sophie. “It doesn’t necessarily indicate a bored horse, but is a sign of relaxation. When horses are stressed or in ‘flight mode’ it is physically impossible for them to yawn due to their increased heart and respiratory rate.”
What can you do?
It is important to spend time with your horse to build up a bond of trust and respect. Groundwork is invaluable for this, and will have a positive effect of all areas of handling and ridden work. Sophie suggests introducing your horse to new things can help him build confidence and improve your relationship. “Horses are naturally inquisitive about everything, so this can be used to your advantage. The more positive you make new experiences, the more trusting your horse will become, and the braver he will be when entering new or unfamiliar situations.”
You are the boss
Spending more time with your horse on the ground will be invaluable to your relationship, but it is important to remember that you are the boss. An overconfident horse may try and take the role of ‘herd leader’ by displaying bolshy behaviour and trying to dominate his owner into submission – a situation which will be bad for both of you. Remain calm but assertive when working with your horse from the ground, and remember to use your voice and body language to remind your horse if his behaviour is unacceptable. However, “being the boss should not be confused with rough handling,” Sophie warns. “This does not make for a safe or happy horse and will just make his bad behaviour worse”.
How to have a happy horse
To have a happy horse, it is vital to be aware of what is important from their point of view. When something is bothering your horse, think of ways you might be able to help. For example, if he is agitated, remember that a threatened horse will want to run, so don’t insist he stands still. Allowing him to walk around will help him settle. Having a secure and happy horse will benefit his behaviour, mood and performance in the school. However, most importantly, it will benefit your relationship and improve your trust, bond and confidence in each other.