Understanding and Responding to Your Horse’s Emotional Needs

At One with the Horse - image of bay horse stood in an arena to support article on equine emotions

Looking at the whole horse, with equal importance on their physical, mental and emotional well-being will help them to thrive.

We can improve well-being and increase our horses’ sense of happiness by factoring in their emotions with a compassionate approach to horsemanship.

In this article, Carey Khan from ‘One with the Horse’ looks at factors relating to equine well-being, while discussing how empowering the horse can help it deal with situations more effectively.

The Five Domains of Assessment

“The Five Domains of Assessment” is a phrase that refers to the different areas that need to be evaluated to gain a comprehensive understanding of a particular situation. The phrase highlights the importance of assessing the different aspects of a problem, rather than just focusing on one area.

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The Five domains assessment of animal welfare incorporates four physical and functional factors with nutrition, environment, health and behavioural interactions, along with the interconnection and impact on the animals’ mental well-being as a key element.

The mental state relates to the ‘affective’ experience of an animal. It considers how the horse is feeling and their emotional response to their situation.

 Emotions Impact Behaviour, Relationships, Learning, and Performance

Emotions impact the ability to function and cope with various situations, from changes in social dynamics to alterations in the environment or routine, as well as during training.

The Emotional States

Horses, like other mammals, experience a range of emotions which can impact their well-being.

Understanding the intensity and frequency of emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, provides a roadmap for effective care and training, shaping their mental and emotional resilience.

The quality of emotions affects brain development, behaviour, and social interaction, sensitivity to stress and how they cope in certain situations.

For example:

Negative Affective State

  • High arousal/intensity with unpleasant emotions can result in a tense, fearful, stressed, and anxious horse.
  • Low arousal/intensity with unpleasant emotions manifests as a depressed, perhaps even shutdown horse.

These extreme states impact their perception of safety, danger and the ability to learn and to function effectively.

Negative emotions
Negative emotions

Positive Affective State:

  • High arousal/intensity with pleasant emotions results in a happy or excited horse, depending on the level of arousal.
  • Low arousal with pleasant emotions manifests as a calm, contented, happy, relaxed, and comfortable horse.

There are various emotions in between, and our goal is to aim for our horses to have an optimal level of arousal and positive affective state to thrive in life.

The Science of Emotions: The Seven Core Emotional Systems

Dr Jaak Panksepp’s ground-breaking research identifies seven primary core emotional systems shared across mammals, providing a comprehensive understanding of core equine emotions. 

Delving into positive emotions like SEEKING, CARE, LUST, and PLAY, and negative emotions such as FEAR, RAGE, and GRIEF (formerly PANIC), sheds light on their survival instincts and potential long-term health implications.

Each emotional system has different functions and brain chemistry and we explore these more in subsequent articles.

Noticing Mood, Attitude, or Behaviour Changes

Recognising changes in mood, attitude, or behaviour with your horse can help you adapt your care and training to better suit their needs. By understanding and responding to their needs, we can avoid escalating the flight, fight, or freeze responses and improve safety in our interactions. 

Addressing their needs positively can lead to a favourable change in behaviour.

Observing subtle cues in behaviour, their level of engagement and curiosity, eating habits, approach and avoidance behaviours serves as indicators of their emotional and mental well-being. 

Allowing their expressions and questioning any negativity shown through behaviour is vital to navigating how they may be feeling and getting to the source to make positive change.

An ’empowered horse’ with a positive affective state copes better.

In life, there will be times when our horses have negative life experiences, creating unpleasant emotions which are beyond our control, such as injuries, necessary vet interventions, or frightening encounters. An empowered horse will cope better and recover from such experiences more easily. 

Proactively seeking positive experiences             

To help our horses have a ‘good life’ we should proactively seek opportunities for them to have positive experiences and pleasant emotions. 

One with the Horse empowers horses through communication and play. To help understand them better and to bring positive emotions of joy and playfulness to an empowered, contented and happy horse.

Attuning to Your Horse’s Emotions

Through observation, feeling, listening, and self-awareness, avoiding anthropomorphism so we do not misinterpret vital behaviours, we gain a better understanding of the emotional state behind their behaviours and when they may need assistance.

Making a difference

In subsequent articles, we explore mini-case examples of how ‘horse empowerment’ has made a difference, from reducing stress and anxiety in a horse on box rest following hospitalisation to healing deep emotional wounds causing separation anxiety.

Further Support

If you are unsure or concerned about your horse’s mood, attitude, or behaviour, you should consult a Veterinarian to rule out pain in the first instance. A qualified and knowledgeable equine professional can then offer further guidance and support.

Visit us at One With The Horse to find out more or reach out for support.


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