If you’ve been around horses long enough, you know the scene. A friend says, “Now that’s a happy horse! Just look at him!” And meanwhile, you’re thinking, “Wait, happy? Are we talking about the same horse? That’s not what I call a happy horse.”

As interest in equine welfare grows, so does the pool of ideas about how to assess that welfare. People in the industry, and even scientists, don’t always agree on what different behaviours and expressions tell us about how the horse is feeling.

With nearly 1500 academic scientific papers published about ways to evaluate equine mental state and emotions, it’s now time to consolidate and harmonise what we know, to more effectively bring about positive change for horses, according to a leading equine behaviour expert.

“We want to know what’s going on in our horses’ minds,” said Natalie Waran, PhD, a Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science and Professor of One Welfare at Eastern Institute of Technology, in Napier, New Zealand. “We need to have good evidence to tell us how a horse feels about what we’re doing and what’s happening in his world.”

Caring for a horse’s welfare means we know how to make sure the animal “has what he wants and can avoid what he doesn’t want,” she explained.

“Is the horse experiencing positive emotions?” Waran asked during her presentation at the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario. “How can we know that, and how can we ensure that he has a good quality of life?”

These questions correspond with a general shift in the mentality towards animal welfare assessment, she said. Whereas a few years ago, people were looking for signs of negative welfare in hopes of eliminating those, assessments then moved towards looking for more positive signs that would indicate “a life worth living.”

Today, however, we’re at the brink of a new phase, one of actually looking for signs of “not merely a life worth living, but a good life,” according to Waran. And that, she added, requires more consistent research providing more reliable results.

“When we talk about a change towards a good life, we need a greater idea of what’s going on through specific indicators,” she said. “Through the eyes, through facial expressions, and through behaviours, we’re trying to understand the balance and identify the emotions.”

This also means letting go of the “snapshot” of what we see at the moment, and seeing the horse’s welfare status in context of his entire life and surroundings, she added. “We have to appreciate that horses have their own internal environment and external environment, and their own previous experience that they bring into the dimension,” Waran said. “We want to understand not only the snapshot of the here and now, but their quality of life across situations, and their welfare from birth right through death and all the experiences in between. This is what gives us the bigger pictures of that animal’s quality of life.”

A scrutinising review of scientific literature narrows down the science that’s most reliable in assessing equine emotional state and welfare, from 1446 related publications the list can be reduced to only 75, according to Waran. But even these studies revealed inconsistencies, particularly in the use of ethograms and the evaluation of behaviours that could change according to the context (head/neck positions, movement, etc.).

Nonetheless, those publications provide a good starting base, said Waran. From these, future research should focus on developing a solid framework for assessing quality of life in horses and providing sound, evidence-based ethograms for interpreting equine behaviour and facial expressions.

“All horse owners and carers should be able to assess and improve the quality of life of horses under their care,” Waran said.

Click here to receive a free download of the Horse Welfare Assessment Guide.

The Guide is based on the Five Domains Model of Welfare Assessment and Monitoring, and will help you understand the difference between providing care and good welfare.

Click here to read an interview with Professor Emeritus David Mellor, the architect of the Five Domains Model of Welfare Assessment and Monitoring.