How would you describe ‘togetherness’ with your horse? Confident? Compliant? Cooperative? Delegates at the 2016 Equine Behaviour Forum 14th Seminar were asked by scientist Dr Lynda Birke to assess the “togetherness” of a familiar and unfamiliar handler, leading the same horse.

An interesting study for lots of reasons, but what did I learn that would help more horses? Language. Not body language. Or horse language, but our use of the spoken language, in order to process and share information. Delegates chose words like “they have an understanding” or “joint decision making”, “paying less attention” or “ignoring human more” with use of the word demeanour as a ‘trait’ of ‘togetherness’. Delegates did agree, horse people use a lot of different ways to describe the same information! This got me thinking, if a room of people with similar or even a strong interest and knowledge in equine behaviour varied in type of language to describe the horse-human relationship, the challenge to train owners to ditch labels like ‘cheeky’ and instead describe the actual behaviour is way bigger than my rose-tinted lens enjoy seeing the world. But progress is progress, the words I frequently use to remind myself and my clients of distance travelled.

Dr Birke reiterated the value of knowing how to read your horse. Reading the subtleties between you both and suggesting moving together perhaps is rewarding for horses concluding, more research needed…

Why the Long Face?

I had been so excited to finally meet Dr Wathan and find out more about her research; social communication and the use of facial expressions. Comparing different species social needs, understanding the challenges and complexities to maintain relationships Dr Wathan asked, “What’s in a face? They are a source of public information, whether you intend it or not! Why does that exist? Giving away information.” We give a way a lot of information in our faces; age, gender, health, and rapidly process the information subconsciously, as well as helping us to maintain social relationships.

Using the Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS) which is based on contraction of the muscles in the face, research is able to move away from emotional context and subjective judgements. They are the facial movements present providing more reliability and consistency.

Subtle Signs

Wathan’s research highlighted lips are all muscles, different ones overlapping giving specificity of movement.   She found 17 individual facial movements in horses (like a nose wrinkling) that can be identified by humans (as there might be micro expressions) and interestingly horses move their ears less than cats and dogs.

Wathan went on to explain the range of expression and different context for the half blink (AU57) inner brow raiser (AU101) and the upper lid raiser/increased white sclera (AU5/AD1). Results showed subtle difference of the inner brow raise between frustration and fear and competition and fear, not surprisingly for a social animal, decreasing in expression during contact/grooming. Unlike humans horses separate each eye’s expression, yet showing the whites of the eyes for both species is a really salient cue, sharing fear, quickly transmitting danger socially.

With the horses eyes and ears being visual indicators of the attention in horses, Wathan used validated photographs of horses to assess what different expressions; positive, neutral and negative to understand more about their emotional states from facial expressions. Results showed horses did not distinguish the subtle cues between positive and neutral photographs, but did between positive and negative. To read more about the study go to

 Ears Pricked For the Camera!

Seeing the subtle differences between the positive and neutral photograph, got me thinking. Why do we think attractive photographs of our horses have the ears flicked forwards? How many times have I seen or been the person waving hands/ flicking of sand in the arena to prick those ears!!?! I sometimes find myself using this example if I am asked why we need more research when often it just tells us what we already know. More research into the emotional states of animals is needed. I find it fascinating we know ears forwards for 4 seconds or longer probably belong to an aroused horse….so I asked Wathan how she selected the positive photograph? Why did the horses in the positive image have his ears forwards? Wathan explained the horse was being fed carrots out of a bucket to induce a ‘positive’ facial expression.   Perhaps the photograph expresses anticipatory behaviour? With arousal levels rising? I believe in science and I believe in progress. I know one day in the not too distant future we will have robust research into our horses emotional states during all our interactions, so it makes me wonder just how well my pricked ear horse photographs will fair? In the meantime we just don’t know what we don’t know, but learning to read how our horses feel through subtle facial expressions is a great starting place….

After a delicious lunch at a local Tea Room, Dr Karina Gleerup from Denmark presented The Equine Pain Face, another great piece of research and I was really looking forward to meeting having used her Pain Face Poster in my chapter in Aspinall’s Complete Textbook of Veterinary (2016).  Basic but fundemental in recognising pain in horses. Dr Gleerup is an inspirational veterinarian. Passionate about bridging the gap between horse owners and vets providing a readily accessible tool for horses to diagnose early indications of pain, to make effective, perhaps life saving decisions sooner rather than later.

Pain is Not Always Bad

Pain is not always good. Pain is just something necessary for animals, explain Dr Gleeruup.  A little is good for a recovery period, a lot is not.  Since 1986 we have been researching pain in the facial expressions of animals, however pain is not stress. Dr Gleeruup reminded us to look at the whole face and general overall impression of the horse. During pain, the horse can step out of pain and be in pain when left on their own. So complex to diagnose the subtleties. Until now. Dr Gleerup advises choosing the right circumstances for evaluating pain and to do that effectively must be done when the horse’s attention is not on you.

Can horses ‘mask’ pain?

Dr Gleeruup explained masking implies an intentional deception, more plausible the sight of a predator prompting a biochemical response such as adrenaline spiking, which has analgesic properties, so ‘masking’ pain.

With much discussion and controversy at the Rio Olympics over pain in the face due to one horse-rider combination arriving in the arena, then retiring, it got me asking again, who is safe guarding our horses in sport? How refreshing and reassuring would it be for the FEI to recruit Dr Gleeruup to train and up skill the stewards, judges, coaches and trainers in recognising pain? After all, we all don’t know what we don’t know. Now is the time for change FEI. Be proactive. Be what our sport needs you to be. Be what our horse’s need you to be. FEI  be our Guardians of the Horse.

For more information about the presenters or how to become a member of the Equine Behaviour Forum visit

Click HERE to learn more about the latest research in Equitation Science in a new series of workshops in January 2017.

Lisa x

%d bloggers like this: