As a horse owner, your two main jobs are to keep them happy and healthy. The two often go hand in hand, but it isn’t always obvious as to how your horse is feeling. Unless you are tuned into their emotions and have a good understanding of equine body language, you might miss their mood altogether!
Understanding your horse’s emotions are important for a number of reasons. Firstly, they will inform you about whether or not they’re well in themselves. A sickly or injured horse will make their ill feeling show in the way they act or behave – if you are able to spot signs of illness in your horse, you can get them seen by a vet as quickly as possible if you have horse insurance in place.
Secondly, reading emotions is important for building a strong bond with your horse. Every horse owner dreams of ‘being at one’ with their animal, but that’s only going to be possible if you and your equine are consistently on the same page.
Be aware of your own emotions around your horse
The first thing to know is that horses are emotionally intelligent animals – so much so that they can read human emotions.
Based on research, scientists believe that horses can not only judge a person’s mood but have a “memory for emotion” that informs their future interactions with an individual.
Summing up the findings, Karen McComb, a lead author of the study and a professor of animal behaviour at the University of Sussex, said: “Essentially horses have a memory for emotion.”
The study involved showing 21 domestic horses a photograph of a human model with either an overtly angry or happy face. Hours after being shown the photographs, the horses then got to meet the same person in the flesh sporting an “emotionally neutral” expression.
Based on how the horses interacted with the individuals, the researchers were able to conclude that the earlier short-term exposure to the photograph influenced each animal’s response.
Horses which had been shown a picture of an angry model viewed the individuals primarily with their left eye, which sends information to the right brain hemisphere, where potential threats are processed. In contrast, the horses which had been presented with a happy model gazed for longer with their right eye, which is linked to the part of the brain specialised for more positive reactions.
“We know that horses are socially intelligent animals, but this is the first time any mammal has been shown to have this particular ability,” said Leanne Proops, co-lead author and a senior lecturer in animal behaviour at the University of Portsmouth.
In short, then, if you want to have a positive influence on your horse’s happiness, you should be conscious of your inner and outer emotions. Even if you’re not feeling on top of the world, remember to throw your horse a smile!
Keeping your horse happy
Obviously, you’ll need to do more than smile at your equine to ensure that they are living their best life. The good news is that most horses respond in a positive way as long as they are provided with certain things.
As long as you get the basics right, most equines are happy as, well… a horse in hay! Here are the things that all horses crave:
Like many humans, horses thrive on routine. With a regular routine, horses know what to expect on a day-to-day basis and feel safer and more in control. So, where possible, feed and ride out your horse at the same time each day.
Horses are highly social, herd animals – if they had it their way, they’d live in a group with other horses. However, not all owners have enough space and money to house multiple equines. If you can only stretch to one horse, consider getting a companion animal. Goats usually strike up a good friendship with horses, as do some dogs. Meanwhile, if you have a friend with a horse, try to go on the odd ride together – if nothing else, for the horses’ benefit!
If you've ever had to keep a horse in its stall due to injury or illness, you’ll know just how much horses need their exercise to stay happy. Allowing them ample opportunity to stretch their legs not only helps them burn off some of that natural pent-up energy, it ensures their feet get a good blood supply.
At least once a week, however, allow your horse to take it easy and ‘put their feet up’. Try to make this the same day every week, if possible. This will allow their muscles to recover and help prevent injury from being overworked.
Grooming is not only essential for good horse healthcare, it’s also a great way to bond. They love it when we take the time to show them how much we care with some skin-to-skin contact. Grooming also provides an opportunity to notice any bug bites or injuries, which can then be treated accordingly, keeping them healthy (and therefore happy).
In addition to keeping an eye on your horse for signs of injury and illness, you need to get the professionals to run their expert eye over your horse every once in a while. Regular check-ups from the vet and the farrier is the best way of keeping that vet bill down. Meanwhile, specialist horse insurance will cover any treatment costs that are out of the ordinary, you don’t want extra expense when your horse is ill!
It’s not always possible to spend as much time as you’d like with your horse. On the days where other life events get in the way, consider running a radio down to the stable to keep your horse company. Equine-behaviour researchers believe that playing classical music can help reduce a horse’s stress and contribute to overall their welfare.
Signs you’re doing the right things
So, how do you know when you’re giving your horse all it needs to be happy? Given that horses can’t verbalise their contentment (in words, at least), you need to be aware of the happy signs, which include.
Their nostrils are relaxed
When a horse is comfortable and happy in its surroundings, their nostrils will be relaxed i.e., soft and round with equal breathing on both sides. If they are less than happy, the nostrils become tight, thin and drawn.
Their tail will swing freely
Like many animals, horses communicate a lot with their tails. When they are happy, the tail will sit loose and straight when they are standing still, and swing freely and evenly from side to side when they move. In contrast, a raised tail would suggest they are stressed about something. A ridden horse will sometimes swish their tail in response to an undesirable leg cue – in other words, they are bothered by something.
Their ears don't flick back and forth
It’s not always easy trying to judge a horse’s mood based solely on their ears. That’s because a horse’s ears are rarely static – they are constantly on the move in the direction of sounds and stimuli. If they are flicking back and forth or pinned back, this is usually because a horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness and could be ready to strike out. Otherwise, if their ears are just out to the side or turned back (but not pinned), they are at ease.
They are defecating regularly
If your horse is only passing very small amounts of firm, dry manure, it can suggest that something isn’t quite right with their digestion – perhaps they’re not getting enough exercise or their diet needs to be looked at again. What you want to see is regular and substantial droppings, which is a sign that all is well with the world.
They are dribbling
A relaxed and happy horse will let the lower jaw go slack – it will be hanging down with some drool coming from the lip. As long as the drooling isn’t excessive, this is a positive sign. However, if you see a puddle of saliva under your horse’s mouth, it might be cause for concern. Excessive drooling can be a sign of everything from grass sickness to a dental issue. If you notice more saliva than usual coming from your horse’s mouth, it’s best to get it checked out.
They let out a quiet neigh
Some horses are more vocal than others. Generally speaking, a neighing horse is a happy horse – a soft and quiet noise shows that your horse is feeling relaxed. If they’re really excited, they might rear up their front legs and neigh loudly. But if they follow this with a frantic gallop, it can suggest that they are uptight and tense – make sure you keep out of their way!
They are rolling in mud
It’s a great sight to see a horse rolling in mud… before you remember that you’re the one that’s got to clean them! “Horses roll for pleasure when they are relaxed and feel it is safe to do so,” equine behavioural consultant Sarah Clark tells the Horse & Hound. But, just to make life difficult for owners, rolling can also be symptomatic of pain – it might be that they are over-rugged or have problems with their digestive system. As the equine behaviourist explains, the best way of telling the difference between a happy and an unhappy roll is to really tune into your horse over time.
They are grooming other horses
If you own multiple horses, there’s a good chance that you will see them grooming one another out of the field – this is a positive sign. If one horse grooms but the other does not return the favour, this can suggest something is not quite right with this horse and needs observing. Sadly, horses don’t get along all of the time. Watch out for signs your horse is being bullied by other horses. Your horse insurance will come in handy if they need any emergency treatment.
If you do own more than one equine, get a multi horse insurance quote from Equesure today.
They only have eyes for their food
When a happy and relaxed horse is grazing, they will only have eyes for the grass that they’re eating. If your horse is struggling to concentrate on their food and is constantly looking around, it’s because they are struggling to get into a relaxed state – perhaps they’re hyper-aware of any threats or craving a bit of company for protection.
They give out the odd snort when breathing
When riding your horse, you might hear them let a snorting sound out through their nostrils. This means they are enjoying themselves and are happily being ridden. They might make the same sound when interacting with a person or another horse – again, this should be music to your ears!
Understanding what ‘normal’ behaviour looks like for your horse
Over time, you’ll learn what ‘normal’ behaviour looks like for your individual horse. You’ll start to recognise when they are happy and healthy – and when something might be off.
To start building up a picture of what ‘normal’ behaviour looks like, you might benefit from having a set of questions that you answer. In our article ‘How to tell if your horse is in pain’, we outline some questions all owners should pose to themselves to understand their horse better.
Keep your horse happy with horse insurance from Equesure
Even happy equines require a vet visit from time to time, for reasons of illness or injury. For those moments, having specialist horse insurance in place is crucial.
Equesure’s team specialise in horse insurance and have over 60 years of combined equestrian knowledge to help create a bespoke plan tailored to you and your horse.
Our policies offer two options for cover when it comes to veterinary fees:
- Option 1 – £5,000 per incident with unlimited claims in the year.
- Option 2 – £5,000 per incident with £2,500 top up for life-saving surgery.
Call our dedicated team today to discuss your options and get a quote for horse insurance.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.