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  • Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Sentience and Horses

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

Sentience is the ability to perceive one’s environment and experience sensations such as pain, suffering, pleasure or comfort. An animal that is sentient receives internal sensation and information from their environment, and interprets this as an emotion. The sensation may make them feel good, bad, or indifferent. The animal will determine how best to act based on this, and use responses in their body, or a behaviour, in order to fulfil their needs.

In 1997 the European Union recognised animals as ‘sentient beings’ under European law. Our understanding of sentience means we must treat them in ways that avoid suffering and maximise well-being. It is a moral imperative that if an animal feels pain and can suffer we take action to avoid, minimise or alleviate such pain and suffering.

It’s important to distinguish the ability to think (reason) from the ability to feel (sentience). The way emotions are processed in the human brain is different from the horse because of the compartmentalization of the horse’s brain. As humans, we have the ability to reason why we feel a particular way. Horses simply feel emotion (without reasoning) because they don’t have the ability to rationalize the feeling.

This brings us to the topic of anthropomorphism. This is the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities, in this case the horse. This is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology which may explain its prevalence. What this results in though is the projection of human behaviours upon the horse that the horse just isn’t capable of. People will say their horse is being ‘naughty’ or ‘she knows how to do it she’s just trying it on’ or ‘he’s plotting against me’ or ‘she’s being difficult because she doesn’t like me’ etc. None of these thought processes are available to a horse. The horses’ brain just doesn’t reason in this way. Horses are reacting and responding to what is happening. If you change what you are feeling, thinking and doing then the horse will change along with you.

Often people spend enormous amounts of time, effort and money to train a horse to change how it does something, while they themselves keep doing the same thing. If the horse is responding to the human then they need to change what they are doing, and the horse will follow. This goes against human tendency, we all prefer it to be someone else’s fault. We would rather look outside ourselves for the solution than inside. Often the change that is required in the human isn’t even in how they handle and ride the horse, but is more about their emotions, state of mind and energy.

There’s an old saying that ‘the outside of the horse reflects the inside of the human’. When a tired, angry, wired human goes near a horse it doesn’t matter how brilliant their skills are they will not achieve the same results as an alert, happy, calm human. A horse will react to the true you, even if you are unaware of how you are feeling. This is a great feedback mechanism and tool for self-growth if we’re brave enough to listen to it.

Allowing a horse to be a horse without projecting human traits on them can be a great sense of relief. Instead of thinking that the horse is out to get you can start thinking ‘how can I help my horse to understand what I want?’, ‘what can I change in myself that will bring my goal closer?’ These are the types of questions that will bring real positive change in your relationship with your horse.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

Lismore, NSW, Australia

Ph: 0401 249 263



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