How many of us actually know what a happy horse looks like?
I like to think that I do, after all I’ve spent twenty years in business as a Behaviourist and have spent long hours studying body language and learning about normal and abnormal behaviour. However, we can only recognise happiness if we’ve seen it before.
In my earlier years, I was mostly exposed to riding horses that had been trained and handled using traditional approaches that rely on the use of aversive stimuli. Many of these horses spent a good portion of their time stabled.
Some of them were certainly ‘happier’, or less stressed, than others.
But I don’t think it was until I began to work with horses that were living a more natural life style, in stable herds, with minimal aversive intervention, that I really began to see ‘happy’ horses.
When I bred and backed my lovely Rosie, I felt that she was the first truly ‘happy’ horse that I’d ever ridden. Her attitude was so different to the other horses, including my own other riding horses.
I began to feel that everywhere I looked, I was seeing unhappy horses, stressed horses.
Then suddenly, one day, my happy horse became an unhappy one. I went to get her ready for riding and she had a funny look on her face. I was fairly sure she was in pain, but couldn’t identify anything that looked like it could be the source of the pain.
Luckily, by coincidence, I had routine dentals booked for the following day, with my good friend, EDT and vet, Carolyn. I explained that I was a bit concerned about her, but she seemed to be eating okay and there was nothing obviously wrong, she just wasn’t her normal, happy self. Carolyn took one look in her mouth and said ‘Oh my goodness’. She had a buccal slab fracture of one of her molars.
There followed a difficult few months while we waited to see how she would do. However, I could see that she still wasn’t happy. Not only did she still have the unhappy expression, she had become grumpy with the other horses, she was very clingy to her mum, which was unusual because she had always been very independent right from birth, and her sweet itch flared up badly.
So we went to the clinic for x rays and Carolyn said the tooth root was infected and we’d have to extract the tooth.
Post extraction, more drama was to follow. Poor Rosie had delayed granulation (otherwise known as dry socket). I spoke to a neighbour who had experienced this himself, a tough old farmer, and he told me it was excruciatingly painful, just the worst thing that had ever happened to him.
Rosie never really returned to her original sunny self. Around six months after the extraction we started riding again, but she quickly but very gently told me that she wasn’t happy. Another vet visit diagnosed joint effusions in hocks , stifles and front pasterns.
Eventually she was fully retired with arthritis and as you know from this blog, we said goodbye to her just recently.
It got me thinking about how you only know what’s abnormal, if you’ve already seen normal, and vice versa. I knew Rosie wasn’t happy, because I knew what she was like when she was happy. But how many people would have recognised the signs that she gave? They were so subtle, just a slight change in expression, a slight hesitance or reluctance to do things that she had previously done with enthusiasm.
I am fairly sure that in other circumstances, Rosie would have been pushed on, and depending on her personality, she would either have ‘put up and shut up’, in other words shut down and done what she was told, enduring the discomfort, or she would have complained more and more vociferously, eventually developing severe ‘behaviour problems’ because she was screaming her discomfort to the world and no one was listening.
I am thankful that I was able to do the right thing for my beautiful girl, but it saddens me that in day to day life I see so many horses that are unhappy. It saddens me even more that the humans around them seem oblivious to their physical and mental pain.
I appreciate that there are ‘happy athletes’ out there. But there are also many unhappy (stressed) horses and ponies. I would really love to see ALL horse people learn to recognise what a truly ‘happy’ horse looks like, and get better at recognising when the horses in their care are unhappy. Once we see, then we have to start noticing what makes them happy, what makes them unhappy. Whether this is through pain or psychological distress, perhaps we’ll then see practises change so that the vast majority of horses are kept and ridden in ways that are truly horse friendly.