Those of us who have close relationships with horses understand that equines are highly intuitive and deeply emotional beings—even capable of improving emotional distress in humans. But how can we aid horses when we don't recognize or understand their emotional needs?
Text below and image above cited from: EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System, by Jen Wathan Anne M. Burrows Bridget M., Waller Karen McComb
Fig 1. The facial muscles of the horse.
NB. Levator labii superioris a.n. represents the levator labii superioris alaeque nasi, which is often also called the levator nasolabialis. Synonyms for the levator annuli oris fascialis muscle include the dilator nares muscle and the caninus muscle. The frontoscutularis has a frontal and a temporal arm.
It’s been documented that horses have at least 17 distinct facial expressions, similar in response to a human' s 27. Horses can clearly interpret another horse’s facial expressions, due to an ancestral throwback from living among the herd. What’s even more fascinating is it’s been determined by research that horses can read our facial expressions and even memorize a face.
If a horse has been abused or had a negative experience with a person, seeing their face can trigger anxiety or tension—which is understandable. However, if the horse identifies only positive experiences with you, they are more receptive to a trusting relationship. If a person is nervous around a horse, they know it—you can’t hide or fake confidence. Horses detect nervousness in humans and it’s worth noting that equines visually process negative emotions from the left eye (right brain hemisphere).
While all this is factual and scientifically based research with a lot of visual cues and information—it’s important to just be in a space with a horse using your own intuition, something that’s innate and difficult to teach. Although if you keep an open mind and heart, the horse will teach you how to understand them and build a trusting relationship.
Depression vs Fatigue.
Depression in horses can manifest itself in many forms and the root cause isn’t always easy to determine. Every horse is an individual and processes their life experiences and situations in different ways. Especially rescue horses or those that have been neglected and experienced trauma at the hands of humans. Unfortunately, not every horse can be rehabilitated or make a full comeback—often these horses end up severely depressed and/or exhibit aggressive behavior. It’s always advisable to have a veterinarian examine a horse, especially if they seem off in any way. In cases where a horse has been severely traumatized, it is recommended to contact an equine behaviorist professional to guide you through the rehab process. And if you’ve even taken on a case like this, blessings to you!
For horses that are exhausted due to being over-worked, fatigue can look like depression—or lead to it. It’s critical for a horse’s overall well-being to have adequate time off from training or work. This isn’t just for physical wellness, but to promote emotional health too. Many times emotional and physical wellness are interconnected, so a holistic approach is a good way to start assessing.
Below image and text cited from: Towards an Ethological Animal Model of Depression? A Study on Horses, by Carole FureixPatrick Jego, Martine Hausberger
Figure 1. The withdrawn posture of “withdrawn” horses.
"Pictures of a horse a) in a withdrawn posture, b) standing non-resting and c) resting. Withdrawn posture is characterized by a similar height between the horse’s neck and back (the nape – withers – back angle approximately 180°) and a stretched neck (obtuse jaw-neck angle). This posture is distinguished from postures associated with observation of the environment (for which the neck is higher) and resting, when eyes are at least partly closed and the horse’s neck is rounder , . Note that the restricted size of the box (3 m * 3 m) prevented the authors from taking a picture of the whole horse displaying the withdrawn posture, as we chose to use the same lens in order to limit shape distortion between pictures."
When there is pain, often times unaddressed pain—a symptom can show up in the horse as an emotional or behavioral response. For example, did you know back pain has been linked to depression in horses? Chronic pain impacts cognition in humans and animals. It can manifest as; short attention span, learning difficulties, memory impairment, or diminished speed in processing information. Dealing with chronic pain daily can result in a negative mood and poor quality of life if not treated.
Boredom in horses can lead to negative behaviors and habits. Some horses require a change in their routine to keep them happy and motivated. For horses that are kept in stalls, either with injury or lack of turn-out—boredom can occur. To avoid potential destructive behaviors or depression, the use of equine safe toys like licks, hay balls and other sources of entertainment can be useful to keep spirits high.
Typical effects of stress will dissipate over a relatively short period of time once the origin of the stressor is removed. Behavioral signs of stress can look like: cribbing, pawing, weaving, repetitive gestures.
Stress and anxiety can run parallel with one another. Horses who are “hot” or nervous can carry their head high (sometimes using it as a sideways battering ram), flared nostrils, tail dock up, or exhibiting anxious, nervous or stressed behavior. While it’s true some breeds run hotter than others, and all horses are prey animals, any horse is susceptible to stress. The issue is when it becomes prolonged, it can cause serious issues with health and behavior.
Sometimes chronically stressed or hotter horses lose weight rapidly and are considered hard keepers. While sometimes it's an underlying issue of ulcers (which over 80% of ex-racehorses have)—other factors are at play. When a horse is anxious or nervous, they fire up the neuroendocrine system and use copious amounts of energy—burning through fats, carbs and protein.
In regard to racehorses, unaddressed tension in the muscles leads to a decreased range of motion, which leads to more stress and anxiety. Especially since stress is very taxing and detrimental to the nervous system.
Image being in an environment where you constantly felt stressed, anxious and nervous? The logical progression is ulcers, weight-loss, burnout, and not feeling so well. Episodes of colic often follow.
PTSD is unique in that it has long term effects on those who experience it. Clinical studies have shown that in both humans and animals who experienced trauma and suffer from PTSD experience physical changes in the hippocampus region of the brain.
The hippocampus is involved in learning, memory and the management of stress. PTSD can trigger a horse in many ways. Because the hippocampus works with medial prefrontal cortex (region of the brain that regulates fear, stress emotional response), PTSD sufferers often have impairments in one or both of these regions.
An example of a trigger is a “flashback” of an emotionally traumatic experience. Maybe it was an ex-racehorse stuck in the gate and now they have a fear of small, tight enclosures. Or maybe it was a wild mustang that was rounded up for adoption and had an abusive first encounter with a human. There are so many variables and possible situations but the key is to discover the trigger and patiently, confidently and compassionately work through it with the horse. A traumatized horse and inexperienced or nervous handler is a recipe for failure.
While this isn't a complete comprehensive guide, I hope it helps give a better basic understanding of the animals we cherish so much—and realize, we aren't so different.
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