Horse Watching

31 Dec

Let’s take a look at horses and their facial expressions. Recently there have been a few scientific studies done that show how similar some facial expressions of horses are to those of humans and other mammals. For instance this study, which dealt with horses and their response to sweet and bitter taste:

Pain is also visible in the facial expressions of horses: this study (page 38 of the PDF) took a look at the facial expressions of horses before and after being gelded:

A quote:

Six facial action units were defined (stiffly backwards ears, orbital tightening, tension above the eye area, strained chewing muscles, mouth strained and pronounced chin, strained nostrils and flattening of the profile).”

This study was also very interesting: what are the characteristics of shut down, apathetic horses?

Everyone who has been watching horses knows what a calm and trustful horse looks like. A horse should stay calm and trustful even when working. It can also naturally be very active indeed and do a lot of very spectacular movements – calmness and activity are not mutually exclusive.

Then, some horses to look at:


These are two horses of the same age in the same situation. Which horse shows quite a few of the facial expressions associated with discomfort?


A horse can be tense, like the grey in the above picture, even though it doesn’t have a rider on its back nor even reins attached to the bit. Even a horse with no equipment at all can be tense in the presence of the trainer.

Naturally a horse looks different when it’s focused and working, if compared to a resting horse.


A focused horse may look just that: focused. The horse in the above picture is doing passage. But a horse at work should never look like the work is causing the horse discomfort nor that the horse is shut off. Look at the two above horses and especially their eyes: do you see the difference?


Even though a horse does a canter pirouette, like the horse in the above picture, it should be able to take in the surroundings – and take a look at the photographer who appears

The horse should look awake, normally interested in the environment and responding to it. Of course this doesn’t mean that the horse may react in the same way to the environment when working as he would when at liberty. He should go about his work when asked to. However, if the training system aims at creating an unresponsive horse – or if it does so by mistake – it is not a good system.


When, a few years ago, the so called Rollkur discussion flared up (put short: the way some Dutch dressage riders warmed up their horses caused widespread discussion and critique) some of the pro rollkur people defended themselves saying you couldn’t infer that the horses involved were uncomfortable just from looking at their expressions. This is one reason it’s interesting to hear scientists starting to define what a horse in discomfort or pain looks like.


The horse is made to move and even physically very strenous activities can be rewarding for the horse, if they’re trained and executed correctly. You should never cause the horse pain in the name of riding. The horse should have comfortably fitted equipment and that equipment should never be used so that it causes the horse pain. The training should be done so that the horse’s muscles and mind can keep up. The horse should be able to work without worrying about being punished. There is no reason to use training methods that inflict pain on horses when there are better ones available.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized


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