What Horses Want


By Gemma Pearson

My name is Gemma Pearson – I’m one of the resident Equine Vets at the Royal (Dick) Equine Hospital – my main interest is equine behavior.

Horses are very basic creatures – they want to be able to socialize with other horses, they want to be free to move around and they need to be kept in a reasonable environment with reasonable feeding. They are designed to eat hay, haylage or grass – they are not designed to eat a lot of concentrated feeds that people seem to give them these days.

From a veterinary viewpoint one of the biggest problems we see is obesity. A lot of people think horses should look a little bit more rounded than they actually do.

Clarity in Training

As I mentioned, one of my interests is equine behavior and we see a lot of welfare aspects simply because people don’t understand truly how horses learn and from that they are unable to train horses effectively. They resort to bigger bits, spurs, different gadgets – things to control – or for “improved performance” whereas if people understood how horses learn they could change their methods. What’s really important to horses is – if you put pressure on them, when they give you the response you’re after you should release the pressure. If you do that horses respond to lighter and lighter pressures and will never need bigger bits, spurs or martingales to tie their heads down.

If on the other hand the pressure is never released when horses give the correct response then eventually you end up using increased pressure. From a physical point of view you can actually see pain and bruising and lacerations inflicted through harsh bits and increased spur pressure on the horses sides. We also see horses in discomfort because of restrictive tack. But then also from a psychological point of view we see horses with increased stress levels simply because there’s confusion in their ridden work.

Freedom to Move

And you know horses are designed to move – not to be confined within a stable. It wouldn’t be acceptable now to keep a rabbit in a very small hutch, or a dog in a very small kennel and only take the dog out for a 10, 15 or 20-minute walk each day. Whereas with horses we do still see this… I think it is important that horses are allowed to exercise and socialize.

Good Care

Certainly in the UK most people look after their horses really well nowadays and sometimes we care too much, dare I say it. Back to obesity… say I wanted to say “thank you” for something – I’d take you out for a meal because we like to reward people with food. We do the same with horses. We often see examples of this – horses whinny when brought food and people see that as horses loving them if they give them food.

Horses Like Different Things

I think we also want to treat horses like humans for example I can think of nothing nicer when it is cold in Scotland – being tucked up in my house, putting a jumper on and being nice and warm. Whereas horses are not designed like that – horses would much rather be out in a field. Some horses if they are a bit older, or a bit thinner might not want to be out in the driving rain the whole of the time but for the most part horses don’t mind cold weather like we do and they usually don’t need as many rugs as people want to put on them!

Horses want to be Horses

I think what’s really important to understand is that horses want to be horses so lets try to look at how horses are designed to live in their natural environment and try and mimic that as much as is reasonably possible.

And, try to have some understanding of how horses learn so that we can incorporate that into their training.

Special thanks to Gemma and a shout out for Professor Natalie Waran, Professor of Animal Welfare Education and the entire team at the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education, for development of this material which was part of their recent online animal welfare-training course.

JMICAWE works in the UK and overseas to enhance awareness of animal welfare issues.