Assessing Your Horse
Before you start training we recommend you begin by assessing your horse, evaluating her temperament, her natural preferences and understanding your current relationship. First of all, you need to get a handle on how reactive or phlegmatic your horse is. How likely she is to get over-aroused or to be very fearful. Or maybe you have a horse who is pretty laid-back or is difficult to motivate and interest in her work.
Then it’s good to know how much of a pair- bond you and your horse have already created. Maybe your horse is new to you and you’re just getting to know each other. Or maybe you have a long history together and a great relationship to build on. Or, perhaps you’ve had long-term issues which you’ve tried to solve using various approaches. By assessing your horse’s temperament and reactions to you, you’ll be able to tailor the training to her needs to be successful from the very first session.
Observing Emotional states
Since the acceptance that horses have feelings is relatively new in the scientific world, it’s not surprising that there has been little study into how they express their feelings. This is something that most horse owners have a good ‘feel’ for, although they may find that their feelings get dismissed by professionals, such as some vets, transporters, farriers or trainers, when they are trying to explain their concerns. Since the scientific world is now accepting the emotional side of animal life, more work is being done to objectively identify emotional states. Here are some of the methods being used.
Heart rate is the easiest indicator of stress, excitement, or relaxation. Heart rate variability can give us useful insight into the internal balance of the horse. For example, it can tell us whether they are reacting ‘normally’ to stressors, or are not adapting well, indicating a lack of coping with the situation. Other techniques used include measuring changes in eye temperature, salivary, urinary, faecal, hair and blood cortisol levels. Although accurate measures of physiological changes, these are not practical for daily monitoring when handling and training. For that, we need to look at behavioural signs you can observe in your horse.
Horse Grimace Scale
When mammals feel pain, their face shows this with a classic pain grimace. With non-verbal humans or with animals, practitioners needed a way to assess the level of pain being experienced. The Pain Grimace Scale was developed as a 10-point scale, from relaxation and feeling no pain (1) to the highest level of pain (10). Recently, the Pain Grimace Scale has been developed for horses. Horses, like other prey animals, need to hide their weaknesses or they will be selected by predators, so they tend not to show the level of pain they are feeling. The Horse Grimace scale is useful alongside other measures for vets and owners to see just how much pain the horse may be feeling despite a lack of more obvious behavioural signs.
Scientists are now working on an equine ‘Happiness’ scale. This will allow owners and vets to understand how positive a horse is feeling. Recently, an equid ethogram has also been validated in order to assess levels of pain when a horse is being ridden.
An excellent full study of behavioural signs and their place in horse life can be found in The Equid Ethogram by Dr Sue McDonnell. The author has compiled studies of feral, semi-feral and domestic horse behaviour to create a comprehensive field guide. This enables researchers, students and horse-owners to have a common language for behaviours. For example, in describing the “stand alert” pose, the head, ear and eye positions are all defined. The comment then notes what follows the pose, such as approach or withdrawal from the object of interest or a return to previous activity.
One form of equine behaviour has been called “calming signals” Horses are highly social and communicative mammals, and they have a large suite of behavioural signals that let others know how they are feeling. For example, if a horse is feeling anxious, these signals tell the other horses in an interaction, ‘Hey, back off a little so I can relax.’ Hence, they are known as calming signals. They help keep horses from going over threshold of fear and anxiety. They maintain calm and cohesion between horses, which is vital for herd animals who must stay together for survival.