Can you read your horse’s facial expressions?
Technical article by Finn Lux
This is a question I have been dealing with a lot in the last few years. In fact, the study “investigating equestrians’ perceptions of horse happiness” by Tanja Bornmann (2021) showed that 93% of the riders surveyed falsely described stressed horses as happy.
Personally, I was shocked by these figures. At the same time, in my everyday life as a trainer, I unfortunately actually see mostly horses with stress facial expressions or pain fuses. Be it in the boarding business, on the showground or in the local children’s riding school.
Unlike dogs or cats, for example, horses have no sound for pain. As prey animals, they also try not to show it. This is because an ailing horse would be the first to be attacked by the predator. If a horse is lame, it can therefore be assumed that it has been suffering from pain for a much longer time, but has been able to hide it successfully so far.
For our domesticated horses, this means that we humans often do not even notice that they are not well and train over their needs. Horses are often labelled as lazy, bitchy or stubborn without recognising the actual cause of their undesirable behaviour.
Basically, I first assume that riders and horse owners love their animals and do not want to harm them. Therefore, I see the problem in a lack of education and it is a project close to my heart to change something about it. To spread knowledge based on scientific facts without criticising individuals.
Much more, I would like to offer help for self-help. I want to give horse people the knowledge they need to recognise that a horse is not doing well. What they then do with this knowledge is up to each reader.
This is how my e-book “Mimic and Expressive Behaviour of Horses” came into being, which I published at the end of January 2023.
I also clear up the issue of concentration in my book. Concentration is often used as a justification for recognisable tension in a horse’s face, but in fact it hardly shows at all in the horse’s facial expression. Only the alignment of eyes and ears as sensory organs reveal what a horse is concentrating on at the moment.
Tense chewing muscles, flared nostrils, worry lines over the eyes, earlobes pressed against the base of the skull … All of what is often called a concentrated facial expression by trainers and riders is actually an expression of stress, pain and discomfort.
Another problem I see is that the social media, but also photo calendars or posters in the children’s room predominantly depict stressed horses. Why is that? Obviously, the sight of a relaxed, happy horse is too boring for us. Does it always have to be action? Higher, faster, further?
The result: we get used to what we see all the time. Our brain stores the stressed facial expressions as normal and we no longer even notice a horse’s discomfort.
I wish I could encourage more people to question. Perhaps in the future you will consider what you base your assertion on when you say or think that a horse is just fine. What scientifically proven facts confirm this hypothesis?
After all, we all want one thing: for both rider and horse to have fun.
I would like to thank Finn very much for this important contribution to our blog! Even or especially because it can be uncomfortable for many horse owners to face up to it (93%!) and say goodbye to old beliefs, this topic really deserves our attention, because we all want the best for our horses after all.