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Well-being through the mind: ethological needs

  • Ethology

Forget wellbeing: ethology is what is needed

Di Rachele Malavasi, scientific popularizer on horse behavior and management of its welfare.

Gleaming clipped coat, protective boots all round, a lovely big space all for himself, with a lovely window looking out over the outside world, possibly  with free access to a little playpen paddock: it seems that all the primary needs of the horse have been met.  He doesn’t have to struggle for survival, go in search of food and shelter, he seems to be fully cared for....but is this true ‘well-being’?

The reality of it is, that we need to meet an animal’s mental requirements as well as its physical ones.  The latter are all about the body: water, keeping warm, food, access to care, for example.  Until the end of the last decade these needs were considered way more important than all the other, mental, needs, both for humans and for other animals.  In 1945 the psychologist Abraham Maslow asserted this in his famous hierarchy: a pyramid having as its base physiological needs, then above those, needs of security and belonging.  Towards the top of the pyramid we come to the more abstract needs such as self esteem, belonging and so on.  According to Maslow, we need to satisfy our physical and safety needs before we can perceive our need for belonging to a group; thus our needs must be met in a progressive fashion, in order of importance. 

However, things are not quite like that.  Maslow’s hierarchy is a model, a way of simplifying reality to make it more manageable: we have to satisfy our basic physiological needs and the rest are optionals. Whereas reality is much more complex than that; in reality, none of the physiological needs can be satisfied without adequate social connection (Nelson and Panksepp, 1998). So it is not coincidental that most mammals are social species, because that social connection and support is what gives protection, safer conditions for raising young, or being able to relax enough to eat because there are sentinels protecting the group, and so on. 

Roberto Marchesini, a globally recognised Italian philosopher and ethologist, has redesigned Maslow’s pyramid in the shape of a cake, to underline the interrelated importance of the various types of needs. One study focussed on horses shows that an injured or unwell horse whose companion is taken away, will put all its effort into finding that companion, rather than in seeking to relieve its pain (Reid et al, 2017).

The scientific term ‘ethological needs’ distinguishes these needs from the purely physiological ones; some behavioural needs must be guaranteed if an animal is to enjoy a life of well-being, independently of whether physiological  needs have been met (VanDierendonck&Spruijt 2012, Sprujit et al. 2001). Ethological needs are true dependencies, mediated by opiod receptors in the body; if these needs are not met, there is an increase in the amount of cortisol released, and of stress.  As soon as the behaviour is permitted once more, it can be repeated to excess: this is called ‘post-inhibition recovery effect’. We see this for example when a horse will roll the moment it is released onto pasture, if it has been kept too long in an area where it cannot roll.


So what are the ethological necessities for a horse? Studies have identified three.  First and foremost is the opportunity to perform mutual grooming, that reciprocal nibbling of the body (principally, withers, crest of the neck, and flanks). In order to carry this out, the two bodies must be inthe same physical space, reaching over a fence to do it is not sufficient – this is comparable to hugging someone through a car window: it’s nice, but for a real hug you have to get out of the car.  Nature has made this mutual grooming an absolute essential for the horse:  it is an excellent way of reducing stress and creating bonds which keep the group together, thus enhancing survival. 

The second ethological necessity is the chance to play, and it does not matter whether you consider your horse the playful type or not – the existence of a choice is what counts in mental wellbeing.  The horse has to have suitable companions, so for example a foal shouldn’t live with onlymature horses, but also with another just like him, delighting in mad chases or pretend fights. Nature has made play a necessity because it serves to develop many of the cognitive abilities, such as the ability to read subtle communication signs, to simulate, to improvise.  This is a topic for an article on its own.

The third ethological necessity, identified as such by Schenider and Krueger (2012), is the chance to defend what is precious to an individual.  In particular, they observed how, when its preferred companion engages in mutual grooming with another horse, it is very important for a horse to intervene by driving the intruder off.  The researchers suggest this causes a chain reaction of endorphins, possibly because they increase the perception within the individual of self-effectiveness, as well as increasing his sense of security.  In addition, when two horses are split up because of management changes, the pain they experience can arise not only from the loss of a companion per se, but also from a sense of impotence at not having been able to intervene. Carol Hall, in a beautiful article written in 2013, confirms that horses do in fact feel these emotions.  

To guarantee that all horses live in  a state of mental wellbeing, as well as physical, these three ethological needs of mutual grooming, play, and defending bonds with companions, must be met.  You will have noticed that all these ethological needs imply the presence of a social group. A horse that lives isolated (whether in a loose box or a paddock) cannot play, cannot perform mutual grooming, and cannot form those affectionate bonds to be defended. Not even living in a pair, however much an improvement it might be over living in isolation, is ideal, because it is not a given that the two animals will like each other enough to be drawn to engaging in these behaviours with each other. 


  • VanDierendonck, M. C., &Spruijt, B. M. (2012). Coping in groups of domestic horses–Review from a social and neurobiological perspective. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 138(3-4), 194-202.
  • Hall, C., Goodwin, D., Heleski, C., Randle, H., &Waran, N. (2008). Is there evidence of learned helplessness in horses? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11(3), 249-266.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivazione e personalità, (Italian translation),  Armando, Roma, 1973, (Original title: Motivation and personality).
  • Nelson, E.E., Panksepp, J., 1998. Brain substrates of infant–motherattachment: contributions of opioids, oxytocin, and norepinephrine.Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 22 (3), 437–452.
  • Reid, K., Rogers, C.W., Gronqvist, G., Gee, E.K., &Bolwell, C.F., Anxiety and pain in horses measured by heart rate variability and behavior. Journal of VeterinaryBehavior 22, (2017): 1-6
  • Schneider, G., & Krueger, K. (2012). Third-party interventions keep social partners from exchanging affiliative interactions with others. Animal Behaviour, 83(2), 377-387.
  • Spruijt, B.M., van den Bos, R., Pijlman, F.T.A., 2001. A concept of welfarebased on reward evaluating mechanisms in the brain: anticipatory behaviour as an indicator for the state of reward systems. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 72 (2), 145–171.
  • Cake of necessities, devised by Roberto Marchesini.