Welfare of horses: is it possible to judge if a horse is a happy athlete?

A study of Professor Natalie Waran from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, about happiness in athlete horses

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How do you measure something as intangible as happiness, and how do you define it? Human happiness has been defined as a mental and emotional state of wellbeing with enjoyable activities. Pleasurable social activities, feelings of engagement and purpose with life are cited as some of the contributing causes of human happiness; however, does happiness exist in species other than humans and if it does can the signs be identified?

Presenting at the 11th International Equitation Science Conference (ISES) conference, Professor Natalie Waran from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland stated that ‘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”. Indicators of good welfare for horses are becoming more important for animal welfare policy and legislation. Whilst it is not known if happiness actually exists in non-human species, it is generally accepted that if an animal is perceived to be experiencing pleasure, or indeed happiness, then its needs are being met and its welfare is beneficial. There is broad agreement within industry that behaviours such as, tail swishing, teeth grinding and expressing flight behaviours whilst being ridden may be an indication of negative emotional states, but there is less clarity on which behaviours may be seen as positive welfare indicator. Laboratory studies based on preference testing and analysis of behaviours shown in situations that are assumed to provide a positive emotional experience for the horse have highlighted a number of specific behaviours which can potentially be used to determine whether a horse is happy or not. However, Waran states that “for these objective measures to be of use we must also consider the real world where horses live, work and compete”. Future findings from objective studies of horse emotion, specifically the behaviours that are indicative of mood, will have to relate to equine training, performance and success. Once this is achieved, coaches, riders and sports officials can learn to recognise behaviours indicative of positive emotion in horses.