Quality of life

May 2021 

As horse owners we know and love our horses and as such need to translate the information they give us to determine their quality of life. This can be difficult to assess, especially when you see that horse every day. There are two main elements to take into consideration; physical health and mental wellbeing. When tracking these on a regular basis, it can give a clear indicator of your horse’s quality of life.

Horse in Sunset
Credit: Jon Stroud


Mental Wellbeing

To determine if our horses are “happy” we first need to understand what is important to them. As a free ranging feral horse, a positive emotional state would come from the interaction with their herd. This can look different for the domesticated horse, but the need for social interaction remains the same1. So how do I know if my horse is happy? The table below highlights positive and negative pointers that can help you monitor any change in their emotional wellbeing. However, it is important to note that no two horses have the same influences in life, such as intensity of work or physical health

Positive Negative
They greet you in the same way each day Is withdrawn, dull or depressed e.g., stands in the corner of the stable with head down
They spend most of their day grazing or eating roughage Not interested in food
Interaction with other horses e.g., they can see other horses from their stable, share a field or can see other horses from their field Stereotypical behaviour such as crib biting, box walking or weaving
Mutual grooming with other horses and regular grooming from owner Stays away from other horses in the field or is grumpy when groomed
Your horse expresses himself in their usual way Horse has become grumpy or aggressive
Your horse is happy and attentive when ridden, driven or exercised Have they become grumpy when tacking up or object to being ridden, driven or exercised (this could also be physical)
Does your horse have a relaxed expression on their face both in the stable and when moving or ridden, driven or exercised Does your horse have tension around their muzzle and eyes

Table 1: Emotional assessment of the horse2, 3, 4, 5, 6

 

If there is a change from positive to negative, can you easily understand why? For example, if your horse is not interacting with its field mates, is it because they are new to the field. Or if there is a lack of interest in food, are they having difficulty eating due to dental pain or does their diet need reassessing? A good place to seek advice is from your veterinary surgeon, who can help you decide on the best course of action.

Physical Wellbeing

The physical wellbeing of your horse has many factors that will affect how you view their physical health. For example, are they recovering from an injury? Are they an older horse? Do they have a short-term or chronic condition? The following list will help you identify if your horse is comfortable or needs veterinary assistance.

  • Is your horse maintaining a healthy weight? To find out how to fat score your horse click here.
  • Can your horse still perform normal movement with ease, e.g., rolling, getting down or standing up?
  • Is your horse as active as normal? Have you noticed a change in their movement? Are they stiff or reluctant to walk? Do they lay down for long periods, or not at all?
  • Can your horse stand comfortably on all four feet?
  • Has your horse lost weight or muscle condition taking into consideration their age and workload?
  • Is your horse happy to accept the bit7?
  • Does your horse feel different when ridden?
  • Has your horse’s eating and drinking habits changed?

If any of these questions have raised concern, you should speak to your vet. The vet will be able to assess your horse to determine the problem, then put in place a plan of action to help improve their condition.

Managing the ageing horse

Horses are now living longer than ever but with that comes the increasing likelihood that they may also have health issues that can be difficult to spot8. Perhaps a condition that effects their movement such as arthritis or a condition such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) also known as Cushing’s Disease that means a new way of managing them is needed. It is important to understand that often inexpensive treatments are available to improve the quality of life for older horses and ponies to help manage their conditions and prolong a good quality of life.

 

old horse

 

The non-ridden pointers above can be used to help monitor your horse’s condition and help your team of veterinary professionals when they visit. Other things to take into consideration for the older horse are listed below.

  • Are their teeth in good condition? Can they still eat roughage, or do they need a softer diet? It is worth contacting your nutritionist to help you assess their diet, as an older horse has different nutritional requirements. If your horse has a condition speak to your vet for the implication of their grazing and turnout.

smooth mouth
Older horse showing the enamel wearing out on the surface and developing ‘smooth mouth’
Credit: Chris Pearce, Equine Dental Clinic

  • Does your horse require a musculoskeletal therapist that can give you guidance and help maintain joint mobilisation?
  • Older horses can be more susceptible to parasites, so maintaining your faecal egg count and worming programme is vital.
  • It is also vital to keep up to date with dental checks. For more information on dental health click here.

Documenting your horse’s physical and mental health will give you a definitive answer to any change in their quality of life (positive or negative). The British Horse Society’s quality of life indicator will help you track any changes over time and help inform your decision should you need to consider euthanasia. And don’t forget your vet and veterinary professionals will have also documented your horse’s condition.

If you are in need of advice and support the BHS Welfare Department is always willing to talk to owners about any concerns and provide information, advice, and support. Contact welfare@bhs.org.uk or 02476 840517. They also provide advice and support through their Friends at the End scheme.

References

1. Hall, C. et al. 2019 Assessing equine emotional state. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159118301163

2. Botreau, R. et al. 2007 Definition of criteria for overall assessment of animal welfare. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/14868239/Definition_of_criteria_for_overall_assessment_of_animal_welfare

3. Mellor, D. J. 2012 Animal emotions, behaviour and promotion of positive welfare states. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22175422/

4. The British Horse Society 2017 quality of life indicator. Available here.

5. British Dressage No date Dressage Principles. Available from: https://www.britishdressage.co.uk/our-sport/all-about-dressage/dressage-principles/

6. Dyson, S. et al. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787817301727

7. The British Horse Society. No pain, check again. Available from: https://www.bhs.org.uk/~/media/documents/welfare/dentistry--2--final--digital.ashx?la=en

8. Ireland, J. et al. 2012. Comparison of owner reported health problems with veterinary assessment of geriatric horses in the United Kingdom. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21696434/


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