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Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Is my equine happy?

Is my equine happy

Is my equine happy?

As we don’t know what it is like for another person to be happy let alone and equine it is very difficult to assess if our equine is “happy”. This is further a problem because happiness is an emotional state and that is a matter of perception. If you think the natural behaviour for equines is to be stressy, nervous, highly strung  creatures that can take the mickey and get excited at the slightest opportunity then your perception of a happy horse will be different from that of someone who believes their natural state to be calm, relaxed animals, interested in their surroundings, but adaptable and willing when given the chance to be.

Rather than ask is my equine happy it is perhaps easier to start with the question is my equine unhappy and eliminate that question first. Perhaps it is also easier to quantify, unwanted, anxious, nervous or stressed behaviour rather than unhappy ones in order to avoid our personal desires for the happiness of our own animals. 

First to ensure your equine is not unhappy eliminate is the possibility of pain. Pain obviously shows in many ways but the two most obvious are the subtle behaviour changes of shorter term acute pain. These are short term changes to the animal’s behaviour, the threat to nip when you pick up the front feet, the “ears back face” when you put the tack on, which weren’t there previously and are not normal for your animal. Chronic pain tends to show up in a change of character, the pervious lively well mannered animal that takes on “Victor Meldrew” tendencies, which might develop over several months so the changes are almost unperceivable.  Are there sudden unexplained changes in behaviour? Really bad days or sudden unexplained behaviours that seem to come from nowhere and then disappear again, these could be indications of pain.

After pain we need to know if our equine exhibits the normal behaviour patterns of their species. Do they show abnormal or aberrant behaviour, do they have behaviours that seem out of place, or behaviours that seem normal but are repeated time and time again in rapid time. An itch is just an itch and biting the itch is fine but when it becomes excessive it indicates a problem such as self mutilation. Obviously, stereotypic behaviour falls into this category, rapidly repeated behaviour that does not serve and obvious function. These are normally coping mechanisms due to the domestic environment   and the individual coping abilities of individual equines.

Then there are the more subtle behavioural signs that may indicate your equine is suffering from conflict between choices or has raised level of stress. These could include the kick or threat to kick when their feet are picked out indicating they don’t want to kick you but don’t want their feet picked out either, the animal that doesn’t want to be caught to come in from the field, the animal that barges out of the stable door when it opens. The face pull, when you put the rug on or the spooky and napping animal when trying to get them to leave the yard. Do they show changes of behaviour in the field with herd mates compared to when they are on their own or in their stable? Despite being a social herd dwelling animal, in domestication the choice of herd mates is often limited or forced upon them and the space available to dwell in the herd is often too small and these factors can lead to conflict, aggression and anxiety. As an example of this, domesticated horses show increased levels of aggression compared to feral herds especially around food, even when compared to the harshest time of year with little food is available in the wild.

This leads us to ask how much is the animal able to fill their normal species time budget? Equines in general have a species time budget and then individual breeds may vary slightly due to selective breeding. If you don’t meet their natural needs it will be harder for them to be happy. Does the animal have access to a range of different high fibre feed throughout the day, or limited quantities or cereal based foods and three slices of hay which are gone within a hour, leaving 8 hours with nothing to eat? Are they able to move and walk freely covering longer distances? In the wild they might cover 15- 20 miles a day looking for food. Small electric fenced paddocks might restrict grazing which prevents obesity, which is good, but they don’t allow the animal to move enough perhaps track systems may prove more stimulating and meet the animal’s needs for movement, if they are stabled for long periods of time their behaviour usually changes and it is hard work to keep up with their needs for mental stimulation. Do they have social interaction if they choose, can they touch, interact with and mutually groom other equines if they choose. Does their environment provide them with enough mental stimulation logs to chew, toys, different foods to search out? Do they have chance to rest and lie down to during the night? An equine that sleeps for some of the night flat out generally indicates there feel comfortable enough to lie out in such a vulnerable position. Do they have chance for quality time relaxing with other equines or you? Obviously all equines are individual so meeting their individual requires also is a requirement of making them happy, the animal that does not like being in with others will not be happy in a herd being on their own may make they more comfortable. The key is to give them as many choices as possible  and see which ones they choose so they can fulfil their own needs as they change .

If you can work to eliminate as many as possible of the unhappy signs then what you will be left with is the best opportunity for your equine to be happy. For me that would mean an animal that was willing to work with you and yet capable of expressing their own opinion. While a willing animal may appear to indicate a happy one, are they willing out of cooperation and trust or out of fear and avoidance. If the animal feels comfortable with their human they will be able to challenge their decisions and show their own concerns because they do not fear the consequences of behaviour. Many current methods of training , require complete and utter compliance, and there is a consequence for none compliance usually increased force, negative reinforcement or punishment. Surely a equine that fears the consequences of his behaviour can not be a happy animal, well not at least while they are around the trainer. When you sit and watch the animal being trained do they look and feel happy, to you feel happy watching them train or the video of you training them, if training is pressured, with escalations of force or use of equipment that prevents the animal from expressing their behaviour they can become inhibited which again must surely lead to conflict, frustration and fear.

Perhaps it is a bit much to ask if our equine is out right happy, because there will be differences in their emotional states, with different people and in different locations at different times. Much like our emotional states might change with tasks, locations and people, and we have the power to choose our emotional responses if we want, I am not sure equines do.  Perhaps the question should be on balance does our equine spend more time happy than not and are we constantly striving to improve their environment, refine our training methods and soften the equipment we use?

Perhaps the best test is to sit and watch them in their normal environment for a minimum of one hour, five or six would be better. Then video a session of you handling them, training them, grooming them and watch it back. Then find a video clip of feral horses just hanging out watch that. Finally sit in a quiet place, close your eyes and ask this question,” Is my horse happy? “Don’t think, don’t try to reason, just sit and listen to the answer you get back when you stop and listen deeply, only this way will you know the real answer to your question.

 

 

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