Professor Craig Johnson enjoys a little bird-watching.

Do we really understand how a horse is feeling?  Massey University Professor Craig Johnson’s interest in the welfare of horses has led him to explore how they are affected by emotions, and he says the results are surprising. 

Horses were the first animals he began researching after completing a Veterinary Science degree in the UK in the late 1980s.  Since then, he has worked with dogs and cats, and rats and mice, red deer and cattle, and sheep and goats, pigs, rabbits dolphins and also with lobster. 

Research that includes investigating animal species is always managed via legally required Animal Ethics Committees consisting of, not only scientists, but also lay people and animal welfare organisations and veterinarians.

Professor Johnson says most species show their emotions in similar ways, although horses are rather unique.

“For example, a horse will tell other horses in its herd that it is in pain, but it finds it difficult to convey that emotion to a human.  And that’s the part of the puzzle that humans don’t pick up on, because they have a different perception of the world than horses do.

“We, as people, don’t interpret a horse’s behaviour as well as you would for, say, a dog.  A dog’s emotions are quite easy for us to recognise as they’re moderately similar to that of humans, and we just seem to clue into it really well.

“But with horses, their behaviour can be quite different and we just often don’t pick up on it.  It’s not known for us and we don’t see it, as we’re not programmed that way,” he says.

However, Professor Johnson says there are some clues that can be helpful.  The position of a horse’s ears is easy to monitor because horses move their ears around so much.  It will change the shape of its face, and it will also alter the way it holds its head.

Professor Johnson aims to talk about the different ways of knowing the emotions a horse is expressing at the global International Society for Equitation Science Conference to be held in New Zealand for the first time, from 14-16 March in Cambridge.

His talk is entitled:  “Not just what do we know, but how do we know it?”

“I’m hoping that it will make the people who are scientists like me sit and think, hmm, I should also be listening to these people who have worked with horses for generations.”

Although Craig has worked with horses most of his career, he has never owned one.  However, one of his daughters rode for a short time.  But he has a fond affection for them, and the horses he’s liked the most have been those who were his research partners during his PhD studies.

“My PhD ponies were the horses that taught me that horses have personalities, because there were nine of them and they had nine very different personalities.

“It was a joy to work with them, because they were just great, right? And of course, there were favourites, but they were all fantastic.  Badger was a bit belligerent and a bit of a protective soul and liked to look after the others.  Kali was just a little cutie, liked to have his ears scratched. Kelly was a little bit nervous, but once she got to know me, she was a real sweetie. Scooby would do anything for a snack,” he smiles.

Living in Palmerston North, he says that the welfare of horses in this country is very good, and that they are generally very well looked after, and this is similarly the case in Australia and the UK.

“There are exceptions of course, but I think that’s the case for most countries.  There are some quite large wild populations of horses in Australia that live in places that are quite inhospitable.   But then, look at the ponies on Dartmoor in the UK or the wild Kaimanawa horses here in New Zealand.   Wild populations tend to live by different rules – if there’s no food for a domestic horse somebody goes and gets it for them.   But there’s no food waiting for a wild horse.”

Professor Johnson will deliver the keynote “Clever Hans” presentation at the ISES Conference, named in honour of a horse called “Hans” who it was claimed could perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks.  However, an academic later found that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but instead was receiving cues from watching the actions of his trainer.  This salient lesson reminds researchers that they require an unbiased and open mind, as all is not always as it seems.

In his presentation, he will consider the different ways we have of understanding horse- human interactions and how these may be practically applied in the context of equitation to improve equine quality of life.

Meanwhile, Professor Johnson’s latest research is focused on farm animals in Palmerston North where he lives with his wife and extended family, including three grandchildren.

For more about the ISES Conference: