So far in this series, we’ve focused on wellbeing for people. This one is geared more towards wellbeing for horses, but the principles and process are relevant to us all. So, let’s explore one thing for wellbeing – for your horse.

What does it mean?

In 1965, Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council identified what became known as the ‘Five Freedoms for animals’. The idea was that they became the international standards for animal husbandry.

Over the years, it was recognised that whilst the priniciples of the five freedoms were sound, they focused on lack. In 2020, there was a shift from welfare to care; moving from what is going wrong to mechanism of assessing what is being done well and how we can build on it; optimising the animal’s welfare, physical and mental wellbeing. This is where the Five Domains model was developed. No longer enough to avoid negative states, but looking at how we can proactively positively impact our horse’s life.

They can be applied to all animals, but the focus here is the horse, according to how a horse should live in its best, natural state. I’ve put some references below if you’d like to follow it up. Of course, all of this is assessed against the horse’s telos – what the horse needs to ‘horse’ properly. Not what makes our life easier or whether we think we’re cold, so we put an extra rug on!

Cristina Wilkins of of Horses and People has developed a protocol for applying the Model to sport and recreation horses. This looks at two aspects; the horse itself and its environment.

What does it cover?

Nutrition Indicators

Horse aspects; This covers aspects of ensuring that the horse is drinking sufficient, clean water. And, that its food is nutritious and palatable and delivered in ways that are appropriate for the species. There are several indicators such as hydration levels (skin pinch test); appropriate number and consistency of droppings; body score; evidence that the horse finds the food palatable and can see other horses whilst he’s eating.

Situational aspects; water location access and temperature, eg not through major poached areas or under trees so full of leaves; trickle eating is optimal; food stuffs are good quality and appropriate; forage systems allow equal feeding and sufficient forage

Environment and housing;

Horse aspects; arousal state (is horse relaxed and calm or hypervigilant), evidence of stereotypies (such as fence walking, crib biting, weaving etc); signs of sufficient sleep. Horse maintains body temperature; evidence that they use available shelter and perceives it as a safe space. Evidence of REM sleep (horse cannot achieve REM sleep standing up, so look for muddy knees, bed been lain on etc); calmness during routine care and welfare procedures.

Situational aspects; natural light sources and variation according to the seasons (more difficult to achieve in stable block); noise or vibration levels, odours – perhaps due lack of ventilation. Temperature inside housing or transport; shelter construction and situation, clean dry footing and standing. Time for rest (eg if a busy stable yard, time is set aside for quiet time)


Horse aspects; vital signs, coat condition, heat, lumps on body, nasal discharge, general demeanour. Body score is appropriate to animal with good recovery rate after exercise. Weight distributed evenly over limbs. Ease of movement and soundness, lack of behavioural exhibits of pain. TPR appropriate for situation. Behaviour appropriate to situation eg resting or sleeping, signs of arousal if being expected to work.

Situational aspects; health care plan in place, possibly with the vet. Preventative measures in place such as removal of poo, regular worming. Regular assessments of weight and condition. Knowledge of normal temperature and other vital signs for horse; place to record them available to any other caregivers.


This is split into three areas; interactions with the environment, with other animals, and with humans.

Horse aspects; interest in enviroment and taking part in enrichment opportunities; group dynamics; signs of injuries; attitude and demeanour of the horse. Horse can interact with other horses or other species, but able to have space away if chosen. confident behaviours and a ‘best friend’. Healthy bonds with caregivers, absence of avoidance behaviours when being handled, tacked up etc. Shows habituation to common stressors, responding calmly to cues. Calmy alert to unusual events or presence of unfamiliar people eg vet.

Situational aspects; tack and equipment designed to manage the amount of pressure/release allowed. Well fitted tack with lack of restriction to sensory receptors. For ridden horses, rider plus tack no more than 20% of horse’s weight.

Mental State;

Mental state is measured from negative through neutral to positive. This area focuses on the horse’s ability to resolve challenges. It recognises that challenges will arise in the horse’s life, eg bad weather, but that, where a horse can resolve this eg having appropriate shelter, his mental state will remain positive. Where, for example, pain is present that is constant for the horse, and they can’t make any difference to this experience, their mental/welfare state will be poor.

This domain also includes whether the horse benefits from a variety of positive, rewarding experiences. The more the horse has, the more positive his mental state.

So, why is it important?

There are many reasons why making our horse’s life better is a good thing; we only have horses because we love them and want to see them thrive and enjoy life. Keeping them well is a pleasure and allows us to have a fulfilling life with them.

There is a social aspect too in that horse welfare has come more to the fore in the public domain and those outside of the sport/industry. This means that we’re more under scrutiny than ever before.

Those outside of horses ask really searching questions about the way we have them in our lives. Whilst it’s easy to become defensive because change seems like a threat and ‘we’ve always done it this way’, the fact is that we have a responsibility to know better and do better whether we’re being watched or not.

This is a very brief outline of the Five Domains and how it can be used (regularly) to assess whether or not we’re doing the best for our horses (or other animals). Where we find that their health and wellbeing is compromised in some way (according to the horse, not us) then we can plan to take action to resolve.

And for humans?

Whilst these five domains are specifically animal welfare related (and as applied to horses), we mustn’t forget that humans are also animals. There are many models of wellbeing for humans; many of you will know that the one that I use most frequently in my coaching work is the Basic Needs from Kay Cooke.

Further Reading – One thing for wellbeing – for your horse

Extending the five domains model to assess for positive welfare indicators here

RSPCA article about five freedoms and five domains here

Five domains model and its key applications here

Paradigm shift from care to welfare here

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one thing for wellbeing - for your horse