Equine emotions in training

All mammals share the 7 basic emotional systems, SEEKING, CARE, PLAY, LUST, PANIC/GRIEF, RAGE and FEAR. These words are capitalised, as per Dr Jaak Panksepp’s work and decades of study on the subject.

These emotional systems can be divided into “feel–good” or “feel-bad” categories. The first 4, SEEKING, CARE, PLAY and LUST are feel-good emotions, and the latter 3, PANIC/GRIEF, RAGE and FEAR are feel-bad emotions.

In affective neuroscience studies, when given a choice, the animals chose to switch off the feel-bad emotions. They did not enjoy them and wanted to avoid them. The feel-good systems were appetising to the animals and they would repeat the behaviours that stimulated these emotional systems.

Browsing for grass is an example of a behaviour in the SEEKING-system

Why are the emotional systems relevant in training?

Behaviours are always associated with an emotion. Behind every behaviour there is an emotional system driving it and each behaviour has either a feel-good or a feel-bad history on the brain.

Brain has no neutral state – everything the horse experiences feels either good or bad. Therefore, all learning feels either good or bad.

The question we need to ask ourselves as horse trainers is simple –

Do we want our horses to feel good or bad?

As compassionate horse owners and trainers, we should want our horses to feel good and therefore we should choose to use methods that are activating the “feel-good” emotional systems, SEEKING, CARE and PLAY as opposed to the “feel-bad” systems of FEAR, RAGE, PANIC/GRIEF.

It is important to note that learning process always includes some frustration, which belongs to the RAGE system, which is a “feel-bad” emotion for the horse.

All animals have a natural ability to cope with bad-feeling emotional states, provided they are relieved from the stress and it is not constant. Horses living in stressful conditions like stabling, solitude, starvation may suffer from chronic stress that leads to physiological problems and illness.

For the horse to enjoy learning and for the relationship between the horse and the trainer to be pleasant, we must ensure that the horse is within the “feel-good” emotional systems most of the time in their lives, in and outside of training situations.

As compassionate horse owners and trainers, it is our responsibility to add opportunities for “feel-good” emotions in our horses lives and actively reduce the occasions where “feel-bad” emotions happen. Knowingly producing “feel-bad” emotions, such as FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, in training is detrimental to the relationship you have with your horse and in the long run also detrimental to the horse’s health.

A happy horse is a healthy horse.

The writer of this article, Pia Saari, is the director and founder of Country Quest Portugal  – a good place for horses and people. 

Pia Saari is the founder and owner of Country Quest Portugal. Throughout her life she has gathered extensive experience with horses in many different ways. She has worked with horses professionally in riding schools, livery yards and racing stables. She has worked in horse rescue and helped numerous horses recover from severe physical and mental negligence. She has studied equine ethology and psychology, learning theory and many other subjects relating to horses. Country Quest Portugal has a mission and a vision to make the world a better place for horses - sharing knowledge by an online course is a very important part of this mission. The course is priced low to make it accessible for everyone who wants to learn how to better care for their horses.