The silent suffering of horses and the (in)human paradox

Human beings have lived and worked with horses for more than 5,500 years. Some historians claim that modern civilization would not be built without the help of its hooves – to transport plows, pull carriages, march soldiers into battle, and carry messages of love and war across hundreds of kilometers, otherwise insurmountable.

However, the reality of this species is not so romantic when we look at its present situation.

The horse has natural characteristics ignored in our human society. Several recent studies that I will mention below show the proximity between the human and the horse, as well as their interpretation, observation, and adaptation concerning us. I want to highlight some topics on this subject:

On social adaptation: The results of a study in 2017 showed that horses learn through the observation of other species, in this case, humans.

On observation and interpretation: A study carried out in 2016 revealed the first evidence of the horses’ abilities to interpret positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions in photographs. The angry faces induced responses indicative of a functional understanding of the stimuli: the horses exhibited a left-eye bias (lateralization usually associated with stimuli perceived as negative) and an increase in heart rate concerning these photographs.

Another study published in May 2019 went further on this subject and showed that horses could even remember the emotional expressions they saw on human faces.

About pain: Horses feel pain, a lot of pain. This pain is hidden by their nature of prey, which makes them a less demonstration of pain compared to humans. But in this comparison, there is an interesting detail. A study from the veterinary pathologist Lydia Tong showed that the horse’s epidermis (the highest layer of skin where the nerves feel the pain meet) was thinner than the human epidermis. It means that the horse has fewer skin cells between the source of the pain (for example, a whip) and its sensitive nerve endings.

Another study from March 2019 showed that the mouthpieces cause pain in the horse and, at the same time, originate in stereotyped behaviors.

About welfare: Our internal research in Denmark shows that the most reported problems with horses are fear, the problems by entering in the trailers, and the stereotyped behaviors resulting from the growing habit of the humans confining them in the stalls for several hours or days. The remaining problems are the result of poor or wrong teaching based on human coercive behaviors, under-stimulation, and lack of habituation to environments.

It should be noted that the biggest challenge for etologi.dk in Denmark for two decades has been greater freedom for horses not to be confined in stalls. A study from last month shows the influence of pasture time on the species’ natural behavior confirms this thesis, and we are hopeful that there will be a greater awareness in this area, which I also participate in.

Anthropomorphism is present when human behavior and human mental abilities are used as a reference system to explain the character of an individual or a non-human species. Although I consider critical anthropomorphism beneficial for a more in-depth study of the understanding of animal behavior, especially questions 1 (function) and 2 (evolution) by biologist Tinbergen, it is imprudent their use for statements like “He likes” or “He is happy,” among other arguments appealing to emotions. Most of them are fallacious, used as justification for the use of horses for the most varied purposes in society.

My prudence in these arguments is governed mainly by the theoretical and practical concepts of animal welfare, taking into account their natural needs, researching various scientific studies, and the ethical issues involved.

In the welfare topic:

Modern techniques in ethology and experimental psychology allow us to have comprehensive knowledge in terms of sensory, motor analysis, the effects of hormones, motivation, and the behavior of species when they are in favorable or adverse conditions. This knowledge has created several ways to assess animal welfare and apply it to domestic animals.

Animal welfare is typically measured using health, physiological and behavioral parameters. The natural behavior is evaluated according to the ethogram (descriptive list of behaviors) of the species.

In January 2019, an article was published on a model for assessing pain in horses using a video system.

It should be clear that artificial environments provide anomalous behaviors, from space per se, such as the influence of various factors in the sensory field that is not considered by humans: lighting, temperature, sound frequencies, electromagnetism, chemical substances, etc.

The ethical issues involved:

Since I started, in 2008, my study in the area of anthrozoology (the study of the relations between humans and non-humans), I always warning about the tendency of creating needs through multimedia content and studies about the benefits of non-human animals to humans, even if these studies fail from the start due to a weak hypothesis. However, coincidently, they meet the economic market and social trends, and in a quick survey, we confirm that there are sponsorships from third parties involved in the commercial areas.

This wave of studies had its boom ten years ago and started with pets (mostly dogs), and in the past five to seven years, there has been an increase in the “benefits of horses for therapies and other social activities.

In an area of scientific study, I argue that there must be impartiality and balance of the same, whether the results are positive or not. Future research should focus not on the benefits from A to B (or vice versa). Still, the short, medium and long term consequences of these activities for both A and B. This opinion is due to the almost inexistence of studies on the harmful effects of human social and sports activities towards non-humans, and the few existing ones present, in their majority, results considered inconclusive and that need more research.

In this article, I develop an antrozoology view on these subjects.

And it would be in this topic of the consequences for the species that we should discuss the need for the use of non-human animals for the various social, sporting and recreational activities, and what are the limits to be considered. For your reflection, I highlight an article published in February 2019 on the use of “jiggers” in horse racing. In another sporting aspect, this 2016 article warns of unorthodox practices that modify the locomotion and posture of horses for sporting practices, which directly influences several aspects of welfare.

I finish with a request: Seek knowledge within the bibliography and credible references, develop critical thinking about all these issues and never be afraid to change your opinion if you consider it necessary, not only for you but also for them.

Below, a video about my approach to horse relationship. You can read in-depth about the subject in this article about my view on animal training.

This article is an extended and updated compilation of two articles originally published in the Portuguese newspaper “Os bichos” in June 2018 and February 2019.