Is he happy?

I wrote this post four years ago – four years!!! Jaysus!!

Up to now, I haven’t had the balls to post it. But I’ve just finished reading Tik Maynard’s In the Middle are the Horsemen (will review it later!), and I’m coming to realise that more and more people in the equine industry are beginning to question what we do with our big four-legged friends, and how we do it. So I’m posting this now, in the interest of making people think, maybe provoking some dialogue.

First of all, a throwaway remark from an old friend on Facebook got me thinking.  Then I read a post on another blog which made me realise I’m not the only person from a ‘traditional’ equine background who starts to question everything he or she has always held to be true.

My friend’s remark was that Aero didn’t look happy in the still clip from the video that I posted earlier that week.  (I think this is the post she was referring to videos are good) “Where’s the bright eye and the forward ear?” she asked.  Fair enough, in the frame chosen at random by Youtube to illustrate this video, his head his down, his ears are back and one could indeed think that he’s a bit pissed off.  But, in the interest of that same fairness, he was concentrating about moving backwards around a corner at the time.  It was his concentration face, I said.  Nobody has a pretty concentration face.

But the comment got me thinking about what we interpret as ‘happiness’ in our horses.  Here are some of my musings…

First of all, I’m going to dispense with the anthropomorphic word ‘happy’ – I don’t feel it’s right to project the human emotion ‘happiness’ onto an equine.  I don’t think that a horse is capable of the same feeling of happiness that a child feels on Christmas morning, for example.  Rather, I prefer to use the word ‘contented’ or ‘contentment.’

So, how do we define a contented horse?  Can we say that a horse grazing peacefully with his herd on a sunny day is contented?


I think we can all agree that he is.  He has food, the security of the herd and the warmth of the sun on his back.  To me, this is probably about as contented as a horse can be.  He’s munching away to his heart’s content, maybe he’s doing some mutual grooming or mutual fly-clearance.  The other horses are all around, perhaps the younger ones are wrestling or playing chase on the sweet green grass.  It all sounds idyllic to me.

But let’s introduce a threat, something that will stress our horse.  How about a wolf or two – this is possible where I live, but perhaps in Ireland and the UK, we’ll replace our wolves with the much more likely, two stray collies who are bored and want to hone their herding skills.

One ‘wolf’ appears on the right, the other on the left.  Our horse goes on the alert.  His head goes up.  Nostrils flare.  Eyes are wide and ears are sharply pricked forward as he tries to determine whether the ‘wolves’ are a threat or not.  Is he still contented?

For sure, not as contented as before. Can we say he is worried? Alarmed?

The ‘wolves’ close in, zigzagging back and forth, but still keeping their distance.  Our horse and his herd become more and more agitated.  They run for a short distance and turn to face the threat.  Perhaps he starts to pace up and down, pawing at the ground, trying to scare the ‘wolves’ off.  The adrenaline now coursing through his system causes him to defecate.

Are we all agreed that our horse is most definitely not contented any more?  Is he stressed?  Anxious?  Fearful?  All of the above?

The ‘wolves’ become braver, and start to make darting runs at the herd.  Our horse and his herd decide to get away.  They’re in a huge, open parkland, so they start to gallop, with the ‘wolves’ in hot pursuit.  Our horse gallops as fast as he can, ears concentrated behind him so that he can hear the ‘wolves’, eyes are wide open, alert for further danger either in front or in his peripheral vision.  His nostrils are flared as wide as possible to maximise the airflow into his respiratory system.  His veins are enlarged to allow blood to flow more freely through his body as his heart rate increases dramatically.  He leaps over rocks, streams and any other obstacles that lie in his path.

What emotion is he feeling now?

Finally, he has outrun the ‘wolves’ (or they have become bored) and he and his herd gradually come to an uncertain stop, pacing around continuously, heads shaking from time to time, as they remain on high alert for further threats.

Can we now say that our horse is feeling good about all this?

Because that’s what we like to tell ourselves.  “My horse loves to go for a gallop across country!”

Think of this :

Our horse is contentedly eating hay in his stable.  Whoops, something is happening – his owner has started to hitch up the trailer.

He fixes his eyes on his owner’s movements.  His head is up, eyes wide, nostrils flared, ears sharply pricked.  He returns to his hay, snatches a mouthful but then goes back to the stable door, eyes fixed on his owner’s activity.

His owner proceeds to go through his or her travelling routine.  Haynets are filled and hung in the trailer.  Tack is loaded into the boot of the towing vehicle.  Travelling gear is brought out and put onto the horse.

Our horse starts to pace around his stable, stopping from time to time to kick at the door or paw at his bedding.  If he’s tied up, he might start pawing at the ground as he fidgets back and forth at the end of the tie rope.  He lifts his tail and a stream of droppings hits the stable floor.  His heart rate is elevated, his rib cage shakes every time it beats.

He walks willingly into the trailer, because he’s a sweet, obedient horse.  (His owner says he loves going into the trailer because he loves going out to competitions.)  When he gets to the other end of the journey, his owner shakes his or her head in disbelief when the ramp is lowered to reveal a sweaty horse and a mountain of loose droppings mashed into the bedding of the trailer.

He’s tacked up and he starts to do his job, be it racing, jumping, dressage, hunting, whatever.  His ears are concentrated behind him, listening to his rider or observing the horses around him.  His eyes are wide, focussed on the job at hand.  His nostrils are flared as wide as possible to maximise the airflow into his respiratory system as the work rate goes up.  His veins are enlarged to allow blood to flow more freely through his body as his heart rate increases dramatically with the work he is being asked to do.

Finally he is finished.  His blood is up and he dances around at the end of the lead rope, or he jogs and fidgets, barging into his handler or hauling on the reins if he is still being ridden, tossing his head in an attempt to break free.

His owner laughs and says “he loves a good run” or “he loves to compete.”

Sound familiar?  I’ve just described the behaviour of many (NB. not all) of the horses I had in my care over the years whenever they had an outing.

So why do we say that our horses love their job when they are giving all the same signs and signals that our stressed horse, under attack by wolves gave us earlier?  Are we simply projecting our enjoyment of competition onto our equine companions?  How can we be certain that a horse really loves his job?  If we want happy horses, should we just leave them in the paddock, eating grass all day long?

I don’t have the answers… just the questions. And the thought that there must be a better way.

Think of our first horse again.  He’s out in that same huge open parkland, with no ‘wolves’ in sight.  He wakes up from a nap.  His buddy nips at him playfully.

“Wanna gallop?”

After a bit of head-shaking and nipping back and forth, the two horses take off with a buck and a fart, running for the sheer joy of it.

This is different.

This is fun.

Surely it’s possible.




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