The internet is full of criticism and judgment about what we do wrong with our horses. We’re often told that we aren’t good enough because we don’t jump high enough, don’t ride well enough, or can’t afford the most expensive horse.

But at the end of the day, what matters most is that you have a happy, healthy, willing horse and that you two are both enjoying your time together.

How do you know if you’re doing things right and your horse is happy? Here are seven of the most important indicators to look for to gauge whether your horse is happy.

7 Signs Your Horse is Happy

1) Williness to Approach and Stay

If your horse chooses to walk up to you in the pasture when you arrive at the barn, it means that she associates you with good things and trusts that approaching you will lead to positive outcomes.

This likely indicates that your horse enjoys the things you do together, or is at least willing to participate!

Research on dolphins shows that willingness to participate is also a good indicator of physical health. Dolphins became less willing to participate in positive reinforcement training at the onset of a health issue.

Changes in willingness to participate were observed even before typical changes in behaviour such as altered appetite, defecation and urination. [1]

Both horses and dolphins learn the same way and show avoidant behaviour when they experience stress. There is reason to believe that willingness to participate is a good indicator of health and mental well-being in horses.

Also, consider whether or not your horse stays with you while training. They may approach you but then walk away once you begin a training session.

A horse that is happy or at ease will remain with you at liberty (without equipment or force).

Ideally, horses should be given the option to say no to nonessential training tasks, so that when they say yes, it indicates that they are truly a willing participant.

2) No Signs of Pain

The Animal Welfare Act lists five freedoms that all animals should be provided with to support their health, happiness and well-being.

One of the most important freedoms is the freedom from pain, injury and disease. [10] A happy horse should not show any signs of pain or discomfort.

Changes in body language, behaviour, and certain physiological measurements can indicate pain, including: [2]

  • Increased weight shifting or abnormal weight distribution
  • Excessive sweating
  • Excessive pawing on the floor
  • Reduced movement or uncontrolled movements
  • Continuous or rapid head movements such as looking at the flank
  • Increased heart rate or breathing rate
  • Changes in gut sounds
  • Elevated body temperature

Pain can have numerous origins, including abdominal discomfort from colic or gastric ulcers, surgical procedures, laminitis or injury.

If your horse is showing any signs of pain, work with your veterinarian to address the underlying cause. Some horses may need additional joint support or medication to promote their comfort.

3) Happy Facial Expressions

One of the best ways to gauge your horse’s state of mind is by reading her facial expressions. These expressions are affected by stress, illness and discomfort.

Because so much of our education as equestrians occurs on the horse’s back, we are often not taught how to read their facial expressions.

Veterinarians developed the Horse Grimace Scale as an objective assessment of equine facial expressions to estimate the horse’s level of pain.

The grimace scale assigns a score of 0 (not present), 1 (moderately present) or 2 (obviously present) to the following six facial expressions: [2]

  1. Stiffly backwards ears: Ears are held stiff and turned backwards
  2. Orbital tightening: Eyelids are partially or completely closed
  3. Tension above the eyes: Contraction of muscles above the eyes makes the temporal crest bone more visible
  4. Prominent strained chewing muscles: Tension above the mouth indicates strained chewing muscles
  5. Strained mouth and pronounced chin: Strained mouth with upper lip drawn back
  6. Strained nostrils and flattening profile: Strained and dilated nostrils, flattened nose profile and elongated lips

Exhibiting one or two expressions on the grimace scale does not necessarily indicate pain, but horses with a higher score are more likely to be experiencing pain or discomfort.

Figure 1: The Painface of Horses

The Painface of Horses | Mad Barn USA

Image from Carolina Baurman (Horse Conversations) with permission.

Eyes

One important element of a horse’s facial expression is the eyes. Specifically, a horse with a happy facial expression will have soft, round eyes.

Happy horses usually will have eyes that appear relaxed and not tense. In most cases, the white parts of the eyes – known as the sclera – will not be visible. [8]

Stressed horses often have triangle-shaped or pointy eyes that are tense and furrowed at the edges. Stressed horses may also have visibly showing sclera.

Nostrils

Another major facial indicator of a happy, healthy horse is soft, rounded nostrils that are not flared.

A horse that is stressed will have tense and/or flared nostrils, resembling a square shape with pointed edges.

Jaws and Lips

A happy horse will have a relaxed and tension-free jaw and lips. Loose lips may indicate relaxation or sleepiness.

Tension in the lips or jaw often creates a square-shaped or pointed muzzle, while the natural relaxed state is more rounded.

Figure 2: An alert & engaged, but not pained, horse expression

Alert and Engaged Horse | Mad Barn USA

Image from Bonafide Behavior & Training with permission

4) Balanced Movement and Calm Behaviours

Whether under saddle or in the pasture, one of the biggest signs that something is wrong with a horse mentally or physically is their movement.

By observing a horse’s body during movement, we can assess whether they are properly balanced, or whether they carry themselves improperly, which can lead to more pain down the line.

Signs that your horse has balanced movement include:

  • Moving with an even rhythm
  • Having proper self-carriage
  • Not appearing tense
  • Moving softly
  • Not hollowing their backs when riding

Hollowing the back when riding may be a sign of improper saddle fit or pain caused by arthritis or kissing spine.

Calming Signals

Calming signals are patterns of behaviour that horses use to diffuse stress or maintain a peaceful environment.

Humans have calming signals too. For example, if you pass someone on the street, you might smile at them to let them know that you’re not a threat. This gesture is not because you are genuinely happy, but rather to communicate that you are peaceful and mean no harm.

Calming signals in horses include looking or turning the head away, yawning, blinking more or less than usual, licking, chewing, and rolling. [3]

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5) Lack of Stereotypic Behaviours

Stereotypic behaviours are repetitive, apparently functionless movements that animals use as an adaptive measure to mitigate stress.

In horses, common stereotypic behaviours include:

  • Weaving
  • Cribbing
  • Box walking
  • Wood chewing
  • Pawing
  • Stall kicking
  • Excessive licking
  • Stereotypic head movements

Certain feeding practices, housing conditions, and weaning methods have all been associated with stereotypies. [7]

These behaviours are often expressed while the horse is confined in a stall or bored, but they can also occur unprovoked. Some horses may spend a significant portion of their time expressing these stereotypies.

If a horse is exhibiting new or worsening stereotypic behaviours, it may be a sign that the horse is not happy about something in their management.

On the other hand, if a horse is quiet, calm, and not engaging in these behaviours, this is a sign that she is happy and secure in her environment.

Figure 3: A horse engaging in cribbing or bar-biting, a stereotypic behaviour

Horse Cribbing | Mad Barn USA
Image from Katie (@thehorsesquad11) with permission.

Not all horses will exhibit stereotypic behaviours when stressed. Some express their frustration in other ways, such as increased aggression or hot behaviour.

Once a horse begins displaying stereotypic behaviour, it can be difficult to break the habit even if the contributing stressors are no longer a factor.

However, encouraging natural foraging behaviours and providing opportunities for positive social interactions can prevent or reduce stereotypic behaviours. [6]

6) Healthy Social Relationships

Socialization is one of the basic needs of a horse. As a herd species, interacting with other horses promotes safety and happiness.

One way to assess your horse’s happiness is by watching their interactions within their social group. Signs of healthy social interactions include: [9]

  • Limited resource guarding
  • Mutual grooming
  • Eating near one another if given a choice
  • No threats of or actual biting or kicking

Figure 4: Two horses engaging in normal social interaction

Social Behaviour Horses | Mad Barn USA
Image from Sandrine Lavoie with permission.

Engaging in play is a sign of happiness and positive relationships among young horses. However, adult horses exhibiting playful behaviour may be expressing a stress response to domestic living conditions because adult feral or wild horses almost never play. [4][5]

Social interaction also promotes a positive cognitive bias, which means the horse will be less fearful in novel situations and will anticipate good outcomes. [6]

7) Appears to be in Good Physical Health

One way to determine whether your horse is happy and healthy is by paying attention to their physical habits, such as how frequently they defecate and how much they eat.

Horses typically defecate 4 – 13 times per day. Take note of what is normal for your horse to use as a reference point.

If there are significant changes in the frequency of defecation or the consistency of fecal matter, this could be an early indicator of a health issue.

Your horse’s eating habits can also tell you a lot about her physical well-being. If she is suddenly eating much less forage or refusing to eat at mealtime, this could indicate something is wrong.

On the other hand, if your horse maintains their typical appetite and forages throughout most of the day, this is a sign that things are going well.

Consult with your veterinarian if you notice sudden changes in appetite, defecation or urination.

Conclusion

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or stressed by all the things that can go wrong with our horses. But we often forget to notice signs that things are going right.

Good horsemanship is not measured by how fancy your horse is or how high you can jump. What matters more is your horse’s overall well-being.

You can tell that your horse is happy if she is a willing participant in whatever you do together, is generally in a relaxed positive mood, can engage in species-appropriate behaviours, and appears to be physically healthy.

If you can check yes for all of these welfare factors for your horse, you’re doing amazing! And even if you can’t check off every item on this list yet, that’s okay.

There are a few items on this list that even I can’t check off yet. Managing your horse according to a species-appropriate lifestyle in a domestic environment can be difficult.

But if you can say yes to even a couple items on the list, it’s a sign that you’re on the right track and you have a clear path to improving your horse’s welfare and your relationship together!

Here’s a quick summary of the top indicators of happiness in horses:

  • Willingly walks up to you in the pasture
  • Stays with you when training at liberty
  • Soft/round eyes
  • Soft/unflared nostrils
  • Relaxed jaw & lips
  • Relaxed, tension-free balanced movement
  • Rarely exhibits stereotypic behaviors
  • Healthy social relationships
  • Normal eating habits
  • Normal bathroom habits

For help with feeding and managing your horse to optimize their well-being, submit their diet for analysis online. Mad Barn’s equine nutritionists can help answer your questions and give you suggestions to support your horse’s happiness!

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