Equine Mental Health & Wellness

By Dr. Heather Beach

Achieving a happy, harmonious partnership with our horses takes a lot of care. Proper nutrition, proper fitting tack, good footing, veterinary and farrier care, supplements, etc–the emotional and financial investment is significant for most horse owners. We all want the best for our horses. All too often in the horse world, however, barns and management systems are designed around human needs and human comfort and don’t take into consideration the unique psychological needs of the horses. Running a human-centric barn management system rather than one that puts the horses’ mental health first can cause psychological stress for your horses and reduce performance.

Behavioral ecology is the study of the evolutionary basis for animal behavior due to ecological pressures. Horses evolved as a social species with flexible hierarchies–their social nature is hardwired in their brains. This situation is fairly unique to equids. It is precisely the intuitive, social natures of horses that make them the wonderful and amazing partners to humans that they are. By studying the behavioral ecology of horses and remembering their evolutionary history, we can better adapt their modern domesticated environments to provide them with a happy modern life.

Horses evolved as social herd based grazing animals. While the only true “wild” horses in existence today are the Przewalski’s horse of Mongolia, researchers study the behavior of feral horses to understand wild horse behavior. Feral horses, which are horses descended from domesticated horses, live in bands of 2-20 horses and may travel 10-30 miles per day, foraging and traveling to water sources. The life of the modern sport horse hardly resembles the life of a feral mustang; most of us do not want our top show horses running in herds where they could be kicked, lose shoes, slip, or have accidents. Sport horses do not have to be managed like feral mustangs in order to be psychologically healthy, but keeping in mind a few important principles about the evolutionary biology of horses can help us provide them with an optimal home environment.

Nutritional Needs 

Horses have certain absolute nutritional needs that will keep their bodies functioning and thriving. While we can meet these nutritional needs very easily with commercially prepared diets, we all know that we should also be feeding our horses hay. This practice of feeding hay is extremely important for nutritional and psychological reasons. From a nutritional standpoint, horses are hindgut fermenters and the long stem fiber found in hay provides a substrate to ferment in the hindgut and is important for overall hindgut health.

From a psychological perspective, the slow chewing of hay throughout the day replaces the evolutionary need for foraging behavior. Providing hay throughout the day in multiple feedings or access to pasture reduces psychological stress by allowing the horse to perform one of its most basic evolutionary behaviors: foraging.

Cognitive Needs

Horses are an extremely intelligent species. They have evolved to learn from their environment in order to survive. Horses have an intrinsic desire to learn and react to their environment and are thus susceptible to boredom. It is our job to help replace the knowledge they would have acquired reacting to their environment with new sources of enrichment.

For many horses this will be in the form of their training sessions. This only works if the horse enjoys its training and finds it interesting. If a horse is showing resistance in training or is uncooperative or defiant, it is up to the humans involved to determine why the horse is not enjoying the training. Is the horse suitable physically and mentally for the chosen discipline? Has the training been rushed? Does the horse have the basic physical fitness for the task? Has it learned the job being asked in an incremental way that allowed it to fully comprehend and understand a more simple task before a more complex one was asked? Is the horse in pain? Horses are honest. If your horse is trying to tell you something, it is up to you to listen.

Movement Needs 

Horses have an evolutionary desire for movement. This does not mean that horses need to gallop frantically out of control with sliding stops and dangerous spins in a field on a daily basis. The evolutionary behavior of horses conserves energy. Galloping spurts are the result of the fight or flight instinct being activated in response to a predatory threat. Most of the time, feral horses are calmly grazing, but they do have the opportunity to stretch their legs and walk a considerable distance as they graze and find sources of water.

For our modern sport horses we can replace their movement needs by providing consistent exercise without overtraining, including lots of walking during warm up and cooling out. Turnout should be structured so that horses have a calm peaceful area to spend outside of their stalls. Most of the time if horses are turned out as a group together, even when placed in individual turnouts, they will be calm and peaceful. If turnout space is limited and horses are turned out in smaller groups with some horses staying inside as others go out, there are more instances of horses appearing to “not tolerate” turnout. Their desires to remain with the herd may be split and they may want to return to the barn to be with the other horses inside the barn.

On the other hand, if horses in a barn are turned out together in a group, keeping the entire barn inside during inclement weather is typically easier as the horses are happy and content to stay with each other. If a horse needs to be confined due to injury or illness, providing a stall sized turnout near other horses in turnout can be a good way of restricting movement without causing excessive psychological stress. Providing shade and fly control in hot weather months and adequate forage and water in turnout also provides horses with a more comfortable environment outside of the stalls.

Social Needs

Understanding the social dynamics of the equine herd is key to understanding the psychology of the horse. This translates both to how they behave on the ground as well as during ridden exercises.

Horses will gravitate to the comfort of the herd both during times of stress as well as simple preference. There are endless examples of this: the horse who rushes back to the barn from a trail ride, who becomes gate or ring sour and balks or refuses to go forward, who is under paced jumping a line away from the barn but rushes the same line coming home. These are all examples of a horse’s way of thinking interfering with the human’s plans.

Too often, humans try to anthropomorphize these behaviors. “She’s stubborn and doesn’t want to work,” or “see she’s faking it, she’s willing to go forward to head home.” A horse that is demonstrating strong herd bound behavior is not confident about its work or is not yet confident working away from other horses. As riders we should acknowledge this and avoid assigning anthropomorphized judgements to the horse such as “lazy,” “stubborn,” “difficult,” and instead work to improve our horse’s independence and self confidence.

Likewise, we need to understand that part of being a highly intelligent social species includes a genetically hardwired ability to read emotions and facial expressions. Horses communicate with each other through body language. Research has shown that horses have an amazing ability to read human body language and facial expressions. Your horse is probably better at reading your mind than you are at reading hers.

Taking the time to consider any given problem from the perspective of your horse can help improve your ability to communicate the right message in a way that your horse can best process. All of this adds up to more harmony between you and your horse, and better performance in the show ring. Dr. Heather Beach grew in Massachusetts riding horses and competing in a variety of disciplines including dressage, eventing & hunter/jumpers. As a partner in Atlantic Equine Services, she focuses on the lameness diagnosis and treatment and loves working on all types of sport horses, from the English sport horse to the standardbred racehorse.

Originally from the April 2020 Issue.