How Happy Is Your Horse?

Your horse works hard. But is he happy? Learn to recognize subtle signs of stress your horse might be sending your direction.

We expect a lot from our horses. We put them up in stalls, climb on their backs, put metal in their mouths, and expect them to run, jump, slide, and spin at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s cold, and sometimes the work is very hard. Most of the time our equine partners step up to the plate and give us everything we ask for, even on days when they may not feel so great. That’s right. Horses are forgiving creatures, and they generally aim to please. How can you tell if your horse is happy?

happy horse
Illustration by June Brigman

There are certainly times when your horse is anything but shy about expressing his feelings of discontent. He’ll exhibit bad behavior like bucking, bolting, and rearing, or may simply refuse to move at all. At other times, he may not be so obvious, and recognizing those subtle signs that your horse isn’t happy can make or break his future. Sure, with enough force and training tricks even the unhappiest of horses can usually be convinced to get to work, often with a shutdown demeanor and a sense of resignation. But is that really what you want? I think most riders agree that a willing, happy partner is not only more fun, but also more likely to advance along the training process. And if it’s competitive success you’re after, a happy horse is much more likely to find his way to the win.

In this article, I’m going to help you recognize subtle signs of pain or stress, so you’ll know what to watch for. Then, I’ll help you develop a plan to identify and manage potential problems before they become severe. By listening to your horse, you’ll know when it’s time to make an adjustment in your management or training plan that just might mean the difference between a career cut short and long-term success. 

Read More: Matt Mills’ Tips for Keeping His Horses Healthy and Happy

What to Watch For

Do you think you know your horse? It might surprise you to learn that owners often fail to recognize when their horse is stressed or lame. In one recent study of more than 500 horses assumed to be “sound” by their owners, almost half were determined to have musculoskeletal problems. And in another survey of 200 owners, 85% missed signs of stress identified by equine behavior specialists. More often than not, signs of pain are attributed to “bad behavior,” and signs of depression are misinterpreted as “mellow.”  Let’s take a look at some of the subtle signs of stress your horse might be sending your direction, so you don’t make the same mistakes. 

Stall behavior: Is your horse extremely quiet in his stall? Studies show that horses exhibiting long bouts of immobility in the stall with their ears, neck, and head held in a fixed position may be suffering from depression. They’ll hold their eyes wide open and may blink less frequently than their more active stable-mates.
In many cases, a horse that is depressed and withdrawn will be less likely to respond to outside stimuli, such as a loud noise. He’s simply tuned out to the world. A happy horse is likely to come greet you with his ears pricked forward when you come to catch him for a ride. A stressed horse is more likely to stand in the corner and ignore you. 

Getting ready: When you do take your horse out of his stall, does he follow you willingly or do you have to drag him to the tack-up area? And once you get there, does he seem withdrawn or is he interactive? A stressed horse may stand more quietly than normal, and you should notice if he’s withdrawn and tuned out to what’s happening around him. Alternatively, does he paw, lift his hind legs, or just generally act out while he’s being groomed? He may be stressed or in pain and trying to tell you that he’s worried about the work to come. 

Tacking up is another key time to pay attention to your horse’s behavior. Does he pin his ears, move away when you approach with the saddle, or exhibit consistent “cinchy” behavior? And what about the bridle? Does he lower his head and open his mouth willingly to accept the bit, or does he resist your efforts by throwing his head in the air or holding his mouth clamped shut? Resistance to tacking is often attributed to poor training or bad behavior, but more often than not it’s a sign that something isn’t right. 

Finally, does your horse walk up to the mounting block willingly and stand quietly when it’s time to go for a ride? Or does he paw, back away, or try to leave when you attempt to climb on board? His not-so-subtle attempts to keep you off his back shouldn’t be ignored.  

happy horse
If your horse does an event that requires a lot of athletic ability and your demands outstrip your horse’s abilities, he’s likely to get sore and stressed. If you can’t identify any other reason why your horse might be unhappy, it may be time to take an up-close look at whether you’re simply expecting more than he can deliver at the time. Photo by cpdprints/stock.adobe.com

During work: It can be difficult to know whether training troubles are the result of pain or simply bad behavior. It’s also critical to learn the difference. That’s why researchers in the United Kingdom set out to develop a list of 24 behaviors that are likely to indicate your horse is in pain when he’s being ridden, ranging from head tossing to tail swishing. After all, you wouldn’t want to put your horse in a device to hold his mouth closed or prevent him from tossing his head if he’s simply trying to tell you that he hurts. Here’s a summary of signs to watch for while riding that might tell you that your horse is in pain: 

Head behaviors: Head tossing, tilting, head position held either in front of or behind the vertical for 10 seconds or longer, or regular changes in head position. 

Eyes and ears: Ears rotated back or flattened for five seconds or longer, eyelids closed or partially closed for two-to-five seconds, frequent blinking, whites of the eyes exposed or an intense “zoned out” stare for five seconds or longer. 

Mouth problems: Mouth opening or closing for 10 seconds or longer, tongue exposed, or moving excessively, or the bit pulled through the mouth. 

Tail movements: Tail clamped, tail held to one side, or tail swishing. 

Gait alterations: Rushed gait, irregular rhythm, difficulty maintaining leads, spontaneous gait changes, (trot to lope or lope to trot) tripping or stumbling, or dragging toes behind.

Overall movements: Spinning, reluctance or refusal to go forward, rearing, bucking, or kicking out with the hind legs. 

Are you seeing any of these signs?  Researchers who developed the ridden horse ethogram concluded that these behaviors are 10 times more likely to be seen in a lame than a non-lame horse, and that a horse exhibiting eight or more of these described behaviors was usually lame.  It’s sad that many of these behaviors get attributed to poor training or simply bad behavior.  Don’t make that mistake. If your horse is sending a subtle SOS, it’s your responsibility to try to find out why. 

Seven Sources of Unhappiness

You’ve seen the signs that your horse is stressed, and maybe even in pain. So how can you determine what’s wrong?  The following are some of the most common explanations for a horse to be unhappy: 

Lame: Lameness doesn’t always mean your horse is holding a leg up in the air or hobbling down the barn aisle. Signs can be much more subtle than you think. Consider scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian for a basic lameness exam that includes stress tests and an under-saddle exam. Remember, the majority of owners fail to recognize when their horse is lame—and the data includes professionals and amateurs alike! You might be surprised at what you learn. 

Sore: Do you work out at the gym? If so, you know that it’s possible to be sore without being injured or “lame.” During the course of a lameness exam, your vet may determine that your horse is simply muscle sore. Acupuncture, bodywork, stretching exercises, and modifications to your training schedule to allow your horse some downtime may be all it takes to manage his discomfort. And back soreness can also be an indication that it’s time to consider saddle fit. 

Read More: 4 Ways to Make Your Horse Miserable

Ulcers: Gastric ulcers are painful and can cause a wide variety of signs. They are easy to diagnose, and effective treatment is widely available. Ulcers can also be a complicating factor that accompanies other sources of pain, such as an undiagnosed lameness. Ask your veterinarian to help you schedule an endoscopic examination of your horse’s stomach to either rule-out or diagnose stomach ulcers as a possible contributing factor to his unhappiness. 

Dental issues: Your horse’s mouth can be a significant source of his discomfort, especially if he’s displaying signs such as a gaping/open mouth, protruding tongue, head tossing, or abnormal head positions when ridden. Even if your horse has had regular dentistry, dental problems that cause pain can arise between appointments. A thorough exam of the mouth generally requires sedation and a full mouth speculum. Your vet may also recommend additional diagnostics, including radiographs or an endoscopic exam. 

Poor-fitting tack: Ill-fitting tack can be a significant source of pain and discomfort. If your horse seems particularly stressed when you’re approaching him with the saddle or tightening your cinch, tack fit would be something to consider. Your vet may also have identified back pain during a lameness exam. In some cases, the type of saddle pad can make a difference, as can the appropriateness of the bit and bridle setup. Consider scheduling an appointment with a qualified saddle fitter and asking for advice from a professional who is well-educated in bit and bridle fit.  

Poor riding: Rider skill can be a tough factor to address, particularly if it requires admitting that you could be causing pain and contributing to your horse’s unhappiness because of a lack of expertise. That said, an unbalanced rider puts stress and strain on a horse’s back, and uneducated hands can be hard on a horse’s mouth. If you’ve ruled out other potential causes for your horse’s unhappiness, consider consulting with an experienced trainer who might be able to help. Veterinarians know well that a “change of rider” can often solve a horse’s physical distress, but that’s not an easy suggestion to make. If you discover that your horse’s signs of unhappiness are diminished when he’s being ridden by someone with more experience, it might be time to look at what steps you can take to improve your skills. 

Overfaced: Last but not least, every horse doesn’t have the ability to perform every task. Just because you purchased a horse to be a top-notch reiner or a winning barrel horse doesn’t mean he has what it takes. And just because you want to attend next year’s world championships, doesn’t mean your horse is ready. If your demands outstrip your horse’s abilities, he’s likely to get sore and stressed. If you can’t identify any other reason why your horse might be unhappy, it may be time to take an up-close look at whether you’re simply expecting more than he can deliver at the time. Remember, most horses are generous and forgiving.  It’s up to us to pay attention to the subtle signs that they’re distressed. By listening to your horse and taking a step back, you might even discover that the path to success is easier to find.

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