The internet is full of criticism and judgment about what we do wrong with our horses. We’re often told that we aren’t good enough because we don’t jump high enough, don’t ride well enough, or can’t afford the most expensive horse.
But at the end of the day, what matters most is that you have a happy, healthy, willing horse and that you two are both enjoying your time together.
How do you know if you’re doing things right and your horse is happy? Here are seven of the most important indicators to look for to gauge whether your horse is happy.
7 Signs Your Horse is Happy
1) Williness to Approach and Stay
If your horse chooses to walk up to you in the pasture when you arrive at the barn, it means that she associates you with good things and trusts that approaching you will lead to positive outcomes.
This likely indicates that your horse enjoys the things you do together, or is at least willing to participate!
Research on dolphins shows that willingness to participate is also a good indicator of physical health. Dolphins became less willing to participate in positive reinforcement training at the onset of a health issue.
Both horses and dolphins learn the same way and show avoidant behaviour when they experience stress. There is reason to believe that willingness to participate is a good indicator of health and mental well-being in horses.
Also, consider whether or not your horse stays with you while training. They may approach you but then walk away once you begin a training session.
A horse that is happy or at ease will remain with you at liberty (without equipment or force).
Ideally, horses should be given the option to say no to nonessential training tasks, so that when they say yes, it indicates that they are truly a willing participant.
2) No Signs of Pain
The Animal Welfare Act lists five freedoms that all animals should be provided with to support their health, happiness and well-being.
One of the most important freedoms is the freedom from pain, injury and disease.  A happy horse should not show any signs of pain or discomfort.
Changes in body language, behaviour, and certain physiological measurements can indicate pain, including: 
- Increased weight shifting or abnormal weight distribution
- Excessive sweating
- Excessive pawing on the floor
- Reduced movement or uncontrolled movements
- Continuous or rapid head movements such as looking at the flank
- Increased heart rate or breathing rate
- Changes in gut sounds
- Elevated body temperature
3) Happy Facial Expressions
One of the best ways to gauge your horse’s state of mind is by reading her facial expressions. These expressions are affected by stress, illness and discomfort.
Because so much of our education as equestrians occurs on the horse’s back, we are often not taught how to read their facial expressions.
Veterinarians developed the Horse Grimace Scale as an objective assessment of equine facial expressions to estimate the horse’s level of pain.
The grimace scale assigns a score of 0 (not present), 1 (moderately present) or 2 (obviously present) to the following six facial expressions: 
- Stiffly backwards ears: Ears are held stiff and turned backwards
- Orbital tightening: Eyelids are partially or completely closed
- Tension above the eyes: Contraction of muscles above the eyes makes the temporal crest bone more visible
- Prominent strained chewing muscles: Tension above the mouth indicates strained chewing muscles
- Strained mouth and pronounced chin: Strained mouth with upper lip drawn back
- Strained nostrils and flattening profile: Strained and dilated nostrils, flattened nose profile and elongated lips
Exhibiting one or two expressions on the grimace scale does not necessarily indicate pain, but horses with a higher score are more likely to be experiencing pain or discomfort.
Figure 1: The Painface of Horses
Image from Carolina Baurman (Horse Conversations) with permission.
One important element of a horse’s facial expression is the eyes. Specifically, a horse with a happy facial expression will have soft, round eyes.
Happy horses usually will have eyes that appear relaxed and not tense. In most cases, the white parts of the eyes – known as the sclera – will not be visible. 
Stressed horses often have triangle-shaped or pointy eyes that are tense and furrowed at the edges. Stressed horses may also have visibly showing sclera.
Another major facial indicator of a happy, healthy horse is soft, rounded nostrils that are not flared.
A horse that is stressed will have tense and/or flared nostrils, resembling a square shape with pointed edges.
Jaws and Lips
A happy horse will have a relaxed and tension-free jaw and lips. Loose lips may indicate relaxation or sleepiness.
Tension in the lips or jaw often creates a square-shaped or pointed muzzle, while the natural relaxed state is more rounded.
Figure 2: An alert & engaged, but not pained, horse expression
Image from Bonafide Behavior & Training with permission
4) Balanced Movement and Calm Behaviours
Whether under saddle or in the pasture, one of the biggest signs that something is wrong with a horse mentally or physically is their movement.
By observing a horse’s body during movement, we can assess whether they are properly balanced, or whether they carry themselves improperly, which can lead to more pain down the line.
Signs that your horse has balanced movement include:
- Moving with an even rhythm
- Hasving proper self-carriage
- Not appearing tense
- Moving softly
- Not hollowing their backs when riding
Calming signals are patterns of behaviour that horses use to diffuse stress or maintain a peaceful environment.
Humans have calming signals too. For example, if you pass someone on the street, you might smile at them to let them know that you’re not a threat. This gesture is not because you are genuinely happy, but rather to communicate that you are peaceful and mean no harm.
Calming signals in horses include looking or turning the head away, yawning, blinking more or less than usual, licking, chewing, and rolling. 
5) Lack of Stereotypic Behaviours
Stereotypic behaviours are repetitive, apparently functionless movements that animals use as an adaptive measure to mitigate stress.
In horses, common stereotypic behaviours include:
- Box walking
- Wood chewing
- Stall kicking
- Excessive licking
- Stereotypic head movements
Certain feeding practices, housing conditions, and weaning methods have all been associated with stereotypies. 
These behaviours are often expressed while the horse is confined in a stall or bored, but they can also occur unprovoked. Some horses may spend a significant portion of their time expressing these stereotypies.
If a horse is exhibiting new or worsening stereotypic behaviours, it may be a sign that the horse is not happy about something in their management.
On the other hand, if a horse is quiet, calm, and not engaging in these behaviours, this is a sign that she is happy and secure in her environment.
Figure 3: A horse engaging in cribbing or bar-biting, a stereotypic behaviour
Image from Katie (@thehorsesquad11) with permission.