Through their eyes – the challenge of assessing equine emotional state

horseTake a moment to think about what the term ‘equine welfare’ means to you. Does it describe the animal’s physical condition or does it speak more widely of the animal’s ethology, such as whether it has the opportunity to express natural, species-specific behaviours? Does it mean something deeper still, perhaps delving into the subjective realms of equine happiness, contentment, joy?

Until very recently, equine welfare research has explored the effects of negative welfare by measuring physical parameters related to stress, such as cortisol, heart rate, heart rate variability and eye temperature. It is now becoming more commonly recognised that the absence of pain and/or stress is not enough and, if we are to consider the whole horse picture, we must also measure the presence of positive experiences.

If we are to consider a more holistic approach, a better reference might be the development of an Equine Quality of Life (EQoL) framework, that is a toolkit of measures which considers the balance of positive and negative emotions from the horses’ point of view.

Prof. Natalie Waran, a Founder and Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), discussed the importance of the development of such a framework in a plenary at ISES 2017 Down Under conference in Wagga Wagga NSW last week. She described the challenges of appraising both, the measurable and the immeasurable components of what it means to be a ‘happy horse’. The 170 delegates who travelled from 17 different countries learned that, when it comes to assessing quality of life, we need to consider the scientific findings and make ethical judgements.

Prof. Waran challenged delegates to consider how best to assess the expression of emotion in horses, given that in trials, the measurable physiological indicators of stress, such as cortisol and heart rate, can be quite independent of any outward behavioural changes. These measures are, therefore, useful but by no means exhaustive, when considering emotion.

Behavioural changes can be an indirect measure of negative emotion; for example, noticing a withdrawal of engagement with the environment or, for a familiar horse, simply noticing that something is ‘not right’. Recent developments in the development of an equine ‘grimace’ scale or equine pain face, provide a little more information but not the whole picture.

Studies that offered horses choice over their environment may indicate that improved welfare might be gained from giving horses more control over their care and living arrangements. This is a behavioural testing method that is already used in production animal industries, such as in testing the choices caged hens make and the strength of their motivation for certain resources such as perches. However, given that horses, as prey animals, have a species-specific tendency to mask their underlying negative emotional state as a means of survival, this makes the behavioural assessment of compromised emotional state especially challenging.

One question that all horse owners would love to have answered is whether our horses are generally happy. A more immediate question might be, how do horses experience positive emotions like happiness? Whilst there are recognised behavioural indicators of pleasure and it is clear that horses will display an active preference for something they find pleasurable (think moving towards you for scratches in just the right spot), these apparent preferences need to be carefully assessed, since there may be a number of reasons why a horse behaves as it does.

Prof. Waran finished up by urging delegates to ‘be the change’ they would like to see. To thoroughly understand what good welfare means we must dare to step beyond the limitations of the available scientific methodologies, and test the assumptions we make about our horses, by attempting to see the world from the horse’s point of view.

As the ISES Down Under 2017 conference wound up, the room buzzed with the excitement of all the discussions, new knowledge and exchange of ideas over the three days. Delegates welcomed the feelings of connectedness and common purpose. Headed by Assoc. Prof Hayley Randle, the local organizing team from Charles Sturt University, excelled in hosting the conference and giving international delegates a taste of true Aussie flavour. At its conclusion everyone felt reinvigorated to carry on contributing to improving the welfare of horses in their associations with humans.

Source: International Society for Equitation Science