Can we tell whether horses are ‘happy athletes’?

  • More research into recognising the mood of horses is needed, according to an equine expert.

    Professor Natalie Waran from the University of Edinburgh has called for more studies in the area.

    “Unless we develop and use appropriate evidence-based measures and indicators and emphasise their relevance to horse and rider, we will always be at risk of interpreting horse behaviour in relation to our own needs and emotional experience,” she said.

    Prof Waran made the call while speaking at the International Equitation Science Conference (ISES) in Canada last year.

    She was presenting her abstract for a future study on the topic of whether it is possible to tell if a horse is a “happy athlete”.

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    Debates over what happiness is for humans have occurred for thousands of years.

    However, what other species need to achieve happiness and how they show it is a complicated issue.

    FEI dressage rule 401.1 states that the object of dressage is the development of the horse into a “happy athlete” through harmonious education.

    This was debated in depth at the 2004 Global Dressage Forum as a marker and an aim for the sport.

    In her abstract, Prof Waran questioned times we take our horse’s happiness for granted, such as when they are out in the field.

    She said there has been much research into recognising negative emotions, such as pain, fear and stress, but it is less clear which behaviours could indicate positive feelings.

    Four-star eventer and H&H blogger Coral Keen (pictured with Wellshead Fare Opposition at Burghley 2015) said it would be “really interesting” to see results of any research.

    “I think that [happiness] is individual for each horse — you know their character and you can tell from that,” she told H&H.

    “It is really important. It is a huge part of success that they are happy doing their job, they have to want to do it.”

    World Horse Welfare’s Tony Tyler added: “Anything which furthers our understanding of how horses think is always beneficial, and I look forward to seeing the results of the study.”

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