By / 19th March, 2014 / Articles /

At a recent health seminar I attended, I was reminded of the importance of looking at patients holistically; in particular, to consider physical, chemical and emotional stresses. This prompted me to ask the question “Do we assess equine health holistically?”

When assessing human health issues, we were reminded to bring social factors, family dynamics, work stresses, toxic load (ie medications, diet, allergic sensitivities etc) sleep quality and lifestyle factors into the equation with the physical examination to develop a holistic picture.

When considering the health (or to a lesser extent the behavior) of our horse, it is easy to do an extensive barrage of physical and visual examinations. We can even get a snapshot of the horses’ biochemistry from looking at blood tests and various foecal/urinary analyses, but does an assessment of a horses’ health ever consider it’s emotional state?

For that matter, how do we know if our horse even experiences emotions? It cannot tell us what it’s thinking so how do we know what going on in it’s head? I believe that with a proportionally smaller brain than humans, especially in the cortical area of higher intellectual understanding, that horses have emotions but not the range or complexity that humans do. They also tend to react more instinctively (a primitive brain function) to emotions and stress than intellectually (a higher brain function).

Men have been pardoned serious crimes and death sentences on the state of their mental health yet horses are often punished as a result of an instinctive shy or misdemeanor under stress.

A professional psychologist will assess a person’s mental state of health but how do we do that with our horse? Leading up to a competition, we might do every possible physical and dietary preparation possible, but we know that if we don’t consider the emotional state of the horse, our competition can be over before it’s even begun. Our horses’ emotions are important.

I believe that long-term stress will lead to health issues for our horse in much the same way as they do for humans. Short of becoming horse psychologists, we need to gain better at understanding and empathy for our horses’ emotional state. The health industry is making progress in understanding the relationship between diseases and our emotions. We need to do better as riders.

A primitive need of a horse is to understand who is the leader of their herd. I believe that some riders assume that dominance and compliance over their horse will result in better performance and that financial return is more important than the horses’ emotional state. However I think that we will not only get better performance and health from our horse when we become true horsemen and horsewomen but we will receive more love as we give it!!

A horses’ emotional state is as important to their health as it is to their wellbeing and performance.

  • Sheridan Redman November 9, 2015 at 2:51 am

    I totally agree with you about needing to understand our horse’s emotions and how to work with them to find a better place to be. May be we need a clinic on this…….

    kind regards



  • Kelli Troy February 22, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    As a registered psychologist and horse owner, I couldn’t agree with you more. The complexities of recognizing and working with the various aspects and nuances of “emotion” (both for the horse and rider) I believe is a key element to the development of a relationship based on trust, kindness, willingness and respect. This is the place where the “magic” happens!


Leave a Comment