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The horse world is lagging behind in the humane treatment of animals. If you prodded a cat with a fork, or smacked it with a belt, you’d rightly be in big trouble.  It would be deemed extremely cruel – abhorrent treatment of an animal and there would be a justified onslaught if it was made public.  Similarly, the use of prong collars on dogs is now (thankfully and finally) banned in the UK.  Yet spurs, whips, chifneys, various bits which resemble medieval instruments of torture are still fully permitted – endorsed even – in the horse world.  Why on Earth should this be?

Is it that horses don’t feel pain? No!! A study by Tong, et al (2020) compared the structure of the skin and nerve supply in horses and humans (Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred types).  They didn’t find an appreciable difference in the epidermal nerve counts between the species.  “But the skin on a horse’s rump is thicker than ours, right?” Well, yes, the dermis is thicker than ours, but whilst this may slightly improve resilience, the epidermis – the outer layer – is equally as rich in nerve endings as it is in humans – more so!  Negative reinforcement/positive punishment equestrians would do well to consider this when thinking of the pain we would experience if we were whipped with even half the amount of force used on horses.


…entrenched anecdotal wisdom is often hard to separate from scientific fact” (Salsow, 2002)


This is something that we come up against all the time in the animal world, I’m sure you can relate.  Anyone who’s observed a horse during warm weather when flies are about will know that even this apparently tiny tactile stimulus on a horse’s skin can be felt – hence the twitching skin and the swatting from the tail.  Given that, how must it feel to be jabbed with spurs?


So, this is a very brief discussion about the scientific fact that equines feel pain just as we do.  That alone should be enough for positive punishment and negative reinforcement to STOP; harsh aids, pressure, smacking, kicking, jabbing, hitting, yanking on reins and headcollars…..


However, we haven’t yet touched on the emotional components of what an equine experiences – not just when pain is inflicted, but also from any situation which he/she perceives to be negative. 


Emotional responses are necessary for survival – fear, for example, is an obvious one.  To evaluate the valence of the emotional experience as perceived by an equine, the observations of approach behaviours vs avoidance behaviours can be employed.  In general, if a situation or stimulus is viewed by the animal as positive, they are more likely to investigate, approach, engage – to varying degrees, depending on confidence levels and motivation.  Conversely, something that they deem as potentially harmful or unpleasant is likely to initiate avoidance.  That said, if the animal is motivated to aggress, moving towards and engaging is a possible choice, so other observations are required; context, body language, life experiences (or lack of).  The animal’s prediction of consequences may be influenced by past experiences, of course.


The evolutionary behaviours of equines are heavily involved with social interaction, as free-ranging herd animals.  Whilst inter-specific aggression may lead to a negative experience, affiliative, cooperative behaviours are typical of equines, and therefore a lack of social contact (particularly of their own kind) or forced contact involving negative experiences, mean the animal is likely emotionally compromised (Hall, et al, 2018). 

Our husbandry practices and the day-to-day care of our horses, donkeys and mules should take this into account. For example, a horse who needs box rest when the stabling is out of sight of the pasture where the other horses are all grazing. Feelings of anxiety due to the separation, boredom due to the lack of stimulation, frustration at not being out in the field – all possible. Happily, many people are now in this knowledge, and address this by having a bonded horse brought up to the yard to be with them, human company, providing interactive foraging opportunities in the stable, or perhaps outside tethered whilst the humans muck out and clean their tack on the yard, having extra grooming or massage sessions, or doing some fun reward-based training (scratches are great if food isn’t the preferred reinforcer at that time).  These provisions, which are as enjoyable for us as well as for the equines, can make such a difference to an individual who is in one way missing out on something that provides them with a sense of homeostasis, but in this way is benefitting from company and stimulation from a human companion.


Transfer of emotion between members of the same species is extremely useful in terms of survival as any perceived negativity is felt by companions and resultant decisions can be made by the herd as a group; an efficient way to communicate danger without being conspicuous to predators, for example.  Similarly, positive emotions which are transferred between individuals assist in reduction of stress, and therefore unnecessary energy expenditure (Hall et al, 2018).


The valence of our emotional state can be detected by other species, including equines, and a contagion effect is extremely possible

This isn’t limited to inter-specific relationships though.  The emotional transfer between horse and human is highly adapted, and has already been identified as a facilitator in Equine Assisted Intervention and Equine Assisted Therapy (Scopa et al, 2019).  The horse’s ability to respond to our emotional states may be attributed to the long historical involvement of the two species.  This is something to bear in mind in our day to day interactions with equines.  If we’re stressed, worried, having a bad day, can’t convince our teenagers to stop shouting and stomping around (that’s a whole other ‘neuro’ discussion!), then the effect on our equines’ affective states – their emotional states – is likely to have a negative slant.  It’s not all negative though! This works the other way round – a relaxed, stress-free, enthusiastic but calm person can transfer feelings to their animal, which helps both to enjoy whatever they do together.  Not only can they pick up on our emotions, but key to relationship building, studies have shown that they possess an ‘emotional memory’, whereby they remember our previous emotional valence when they see us again.  A study by McComb and colleagues entitled ‘Animals Remember Previous Facial Expressions that Specific Humans Have Exhibited’ published in 2018, found just that; the horses in the study responded in the flesh, to people who they had been shown earlier in a photo, with a certain facial expression.  Looking with their left eye (which sends messages to the right hemisphere of the brain, where positive emotions are created) at people who they had earlier seen with smiling, happy expressions, and with a bias towards their right eye (communicating with their left hemisphere, where threats are processed) to the people who had earlier been seen with an angry facial expression.  This really is an insight into the intricacies of the social intelligence of horses, and is so beneficial for us to be aware of in our interactions with our animals – or not even when we interact, even when we are just in their view!


  Whilst you have invested a number of minutes reading through this (and thank you for doing so), this really is a tiny snapshot of the scientific progress that has been made in understanding equines.  Going back to the start – the horse world is so far behind in receiving the humane, welfare driven care that they deserve. Hopefully these snippets of information are helpful during our conversations with people who are sadly, still using pain and disregarding the mental welfare of these beautiful creatures.  I, for one, am so pleased that there are so many of us who are already fully employing ethical and science-based approaches, and indeed, are fully fledged in your careers working with this ethos and outlook.  Importantly, those of you who are just starting on your journey with equines, in whatever capacity and whether professionally or with your own equine companions, the information we have at our fingertips now will make a world of difference to the equines that you share your lives with today, and in the future.

Image Credits (top to bottom): Lunar Sea Art, Midia Content, Natalia Kollegova, PeziBear




Kate is an Equine Massage and Manual Therapist, covering Norfolk and surrounding areas.  Her training as encompassed many aspects of equine physiology and psychology, and she has a keen interest in behaviour and affective states in addition to the physiological health of horses.


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