What Does Maslow’s Pinnacle Mean for Horses?

Written by Catherine Bell, CHBC

How best to meet the behavioural and emotional needs of horses is the crux of a typical behavioural consultation. The job of the behaviour consultant is to tread the path of assessing and meeting the needs of the horse, whilst simultaneously managing the desires and expectations of the owner. So common is this tussle, and so often are equine needs poorly met, that we tend to devote most of our energies to ensuring that a horse simply has at least some chances to behave in some species-appropriate ways, some of the time. So, let us indulge in a little hypothesizing…

Imagine that domestic settings were perfect, with perfect environments and perfect owners. What would domestic horses need in an ideal world? A world without compromise and a world where behaviourists could aim high and implement our wildest dreams in consultations. Would we even know what it would look like? We would see horses behaving like horses, engaged in their normal ethological behaviours; in suitable social groups; free from pain, fear, and inappropriate training. What more could we then ask for? After all, surely we need to know where we are heading, in order to have even a chance of approximating the ideal.

When thinking about the needs of a human, most of us think of the psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Often considered the founder of humanistic psychology, Maslow was interested in our inner drive towards personal growth and realising of potential (Maslow, 1943). He is famed for his pioneering work on the developmental needs of humans, commonly presented as a triangular “hierarchy of needs” (although it should be acknowledged that Maslow himself said that the order was not fixed and that there were exceptions). This triangle has been used across species, including application to horses by Simpson (2004).

Maslow’s triangular hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s triangular hierarchy of needs

The foundation of the triangle considers our most basic needs: air, food, water, sex, and generally healthy bodily functions. Heading upwards we reach our needs for safety and security, and then the third tier upwards encompasses love within families and social groups.

The baser needs

It is not hard to find parallels with horses in these three tiers—horses have basic physical needs that most horse owners will normally provide, and most horses are kept in facilities that keep them reasonably safe, at least from a human perspective. On the other hand, it can be argued that most horses are given ethologically inappropriate living conditions, diets, and social groupings, and so there is probably violation of even the most fundamental needs (e.g., Rogers, 2018). But for now, we will return to our perfect world where all horses do indeed have these needs met.

What happens as we progress still higher? This is where things become interesting. Even the most enlightened of discussions about animal emotions tend to stop short of considerations of esteem and self-actualisation. What do they even mean?! Do horses have these needs, or is it anthropomorphic even to ask the question? I strongly believe that, anthropomorphic or not, we need to pursue the answer to this question; if we allow fear of accusations of anthropomorphism to cloud our judgement then we miss a potential opportunity to improve equine welfare.

The need for esteem

In his first paper laying out the hierarchy of needs, Maslow (1943) considered that the need for esteem includes self-esteem, confidence, achievement, self-respect, respect of others, and respect by others. What might the satisfaction of a need for esteem look like for a horse? We’ve all heard claims that, for example, racehorses want to race and wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to. Or that a horse seemed proud to have won a competition. I don’t think these sorts of claims are talking about a horse’s self-esteem in a valid sense—it’s very easy for us to project our own feelings on those of our horses and to assume that they want what we want. It’s not impossible that they feel a sense of achievement for engaging in human-dictated activities, but it is probable that this can be accounted for by looking at the individual horse’s reinforcement history instead of their sense of self. However, if we think about the nature of a social animal in a herd, fulfilling his or her own ambitions then we may come closer. Might a sense of self-esteem come into play when a mare is followed by the herd—does she feel like she is respected as a leader on account of her ability to find resources? Or when a stallion is able to defend his harem against intruders, or a bachelor is able to win a mare in a contest, might he feel satisfaction in his strength and protectiveness?

Of course, we could instead suggest that these behaviours are nothing more than biologically driven urges that have no emotional counterparts. Despite the obvious need for human emotions to have arisen through mammalian evolution, and despite the limbic system of the brain being common in all mammals, denial of animal emotions has been endemic in science for a long time. Perhaps unreasonably, the burden of proof has been placed on those who claim animal emotions are more than biological urges. But we could instead turn things around, and look for evidence of emotions through the lens of behavior observations. We could ask, what if a horse is denied the opportunity for self-esteem? Humans who have depleted self-esteem commonly have issues with anxiety and depression. There are many horses who could be described as having similar symptoms—denied the opportunities to live as horses and make their own decisions, is it any wonder that so many domesticated horses struggle in a state of helplessness? If a horse can so clearly experience the antithesis of self-esteem, then perhaps it is not so far-fetched to trust that he can also experience high levels of self-esteem. Of course, more research is needed to make these connections more than a hypothesis—research that, in our perfect world, would be well-funded, and undertaken correctly, so we could understand more about how horses see themselves and how we can prevent anxiety and depression.

The need for self-actualisation

“What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation.” A.H. Maslow

Bay dressage horse

Domestication, with its emphasis on “control,” often prevents horses from reaching their full potential to be horses

And so we reach the pinnacle of Maslow’s triangle, where we must consider whether a horse has a need for self-actualisation. The term was first used by organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein, and later adopted by person-centred therapist Carl Rogers, to mean the desire to reach one’s full potential or to “actualise one’s self.” Maslow (1943) expands to say: “It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially…The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person.”

Domestication certainly interferes with the ability of horses to reach their full potential, at least in the sense of engaging in the full equine ethogram. Horses are typically expected to respond to human-led requests, experience punishment when compliance is not forthcoming and have their lives micromanaged every step of the way. The equestrian world commonly thinks, for example, that a horse bred to jump extra big fences is being “wasted” if not competing; but this “imposed potential” bred into the horse over a maximum of a few thousand years of domestication is insufficient to overcome the millions of years of evolution that inform the horse as to his “ethological potential.”  It is the potential as perceived by the horse that is critical here.

Maslow’s use of the term “self-actualisation” for the peak of his triangle of needs led to greater awareness of the concept, at least with humans. But, to be fair, expecting horses to achieve self-actualisation could be considered too much of a stretch, considering that even Maslow (1943) conceded that “… basically satisfied people are the exception … It remains a challenging problem for research.” But why? Life gets in the way, external forces dictate to us, mental health suffers accordingly. It’s not that the majority of humans don’t still have a need for self-actualisation, they just don’t achieve it. But it seems to be the case that we are happier if we can at least approach it; thus optimum welfare suggests that we should at least be trying to facilitate such attainment for the horses in our care.

Well-matched young horses playing

Well-matched youngsters playing

Interestingly, when we consider the characteristics that defined Maslow’s examples of self-actualising people: efficient perceptions of reality; comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature; spontaneity; task centering; autonomy; continued freshness of appreciation; fellowship with humanity; profound interpersonal relationships; comfort with solitude; non-hostile sense of humor; peak experiences  (Coon and Mitterer, 2009), it can be argued that at least some of them apply to horses fairly well. Horses are extremely sure of their opinions and experiences—we all know how hard it is to try to overcome a horse’s classically conditioned negative emotions associated with previous bad experiences. They also have very clear perceptions of reality. For example, horses can be very hard to trick; think of trying to catch an unwilling horse with a head-collar hidden behind your back or riding a horse that frightens you, but you pretend otherwise. Horses know exactly what is going on and have no sense of “peer pressure” to cause them to doubt their opinion, even if the human ultimately achieves their goal through behavioral conditioning with punishment or reinforcement. People who spend a lot of time around horses often say that horses tend to accept us as we are—and as they are—and, through their behaviour, they can act as a mirror for our true thoughts and moods.

Self-actualising people also have very healthy interpersonal relationships (Coon and Mitterer, 2009), being socially compassionate, playful and having a small number of close friends—but having no need for many superficial friendships. The rich social lives of horses are not merely basic needs; they help to define what it fundamentally means to be a horse. Interestingly, self-actualisation also includes people feeling comfortable with solitude, something that seems counter to good-quality equine life (Houpt, 1981). Horses cope poorly with true solitude, yet in a stable, secure herd horses will equally demonstrate an ability to graze at large distances without concern. Some hack out with riders and genuinely seem to enjoy exploring the trails, such that it could be considered a form of enrichment. Despite the messages from various proprietary training methods, horses are not constantly thinking about moving up the hierarchy or worrying what others may think of them; in fact, the herd can be pictured as a complex web of relationships that helps all members thrive (Feh, 2005).

Other traits encompassed by self-actualisation seem less applicable to horses, such as the ongoing appreciation of the “little things”—for example do horses continue to appreciate every last mouthful of grass? Maybe they do; grazing for long hours every day certainly seems to give them something like a sense of satisfaction. But it is a stretch to say that they enjoy watching the sunset or appreciate feeling at one with the universe. However, even if there are some facets of self-actualisation that are not present in horses, that does not render the more applicable ones invalid. Just as for humans, self-actualisation is not an absolute binary state—on or off—but something to which we aspire.

Two other traits of self-actualising people, which domestic horses are not normally given the opportunity to engage in, are problem-solving and autonomy (see Deci, 1996 for a detailed discussion of the term “autonomy”). In the wild these are parts of life; without the ability to find food and different nutrients from different plants, avoid flies, obtain shelter, stay safe, and choose companions wisely, equine existence would be fairly short-lived. In domesticating horses we could be seen to be freeing them from these responsibilities. Or is it more that we are denying them the opportunities, creating unhealthy dependencies on humans that cause suffering, even in the absence of what we would normally consider neglect or abuse? Most horses are given few choices when it comes to their diet, companions, or even sexual partners, and we very rarely create opportunities for them to solve problems. In these restrictive situations, we often see horses develop problematic behaviors to try to cope when life becomes too stressful. How can we avoid this potential welfare issue?

How we can help horses achieve their potential

Black and white horse

Developing confidence through choice

Thankfully we do not need to turn all our horses feral in order to enable them to approach self-actualisation; instead we can think of mechanisms that give opportunities for autonomous decision-making and problem-solving. We can make careful selection of suitable companions based on age, height, and sex so as to maximise meaningful social interactions. Environmental enrichment gives us the perfect opportunity to create problems to solve, for example puzzle feeders and access to different types of browsing. We can provide choice whenever possible, for example creating opportunities to choose gait and direction whilst on hacks. We can respect the choices that horses try to make, by listening to them when they say “no” and using shaping to overcome their concerns—or simply changing the tasks we ask of our horses so as to avoid making unreasonable requests in the first place. We can reduce the amount of training we do with them—is that extra lunging session really needed?—and find more meaningful ways of keeping up their exercise, perhaps by increasing turnout and walking out in-hand. Even training with positive reinforcement, such as clicker training, can be used inadvertently as a tool for telling the horse what to do, thereby increasing human control over the horse. But it can also be used as a means of promoting autonomy, by teaching the horse that exploring the environment and making choices is beneficial (Bell, 2016).

What horse does not need—and probably actively desire—the opportunity to be a horse? Being able to engage in a wide variety of natural behaviors, feeling secure and confident in life, and having the opportunity to make decisions and retain a sense of autonomy. It doesn’t seem a great deal to ask of the human carers, who typically love their horses, to provide a few extra opportunities for decision-making and problem-solving—far from being too time-consuming, it may even save us some time otherwise spent micromanaging. If horses can experience—and actively need—self-esteem and self-actualisation, then the unpalatable truth is that we need to become much better at meeting these needs for horses in our care. Maslow may not have been considering the horse when he devised his famous triangle, but if we care about equine welfare, we need to consider all equine needs and not fall short of aiming for the pinnacle.

Catherine is a CHBC in the South-East of England. In between home-educating her two children, she works as an equine behaviorist and independent barefoot hoof trimmer. She hosts the Thinking Horsemanship Forum and is a co-founder of the Equine Behavior and Training Association.


Bell, C. (2016). What is clicker training horses actually good for? The IAABC Foundation Journal 2

Coon, D. & Mitterer, J.O, (2009) Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. 12th Ed. CA: Wadsworth.

Deci, E. (1996). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. London: Penguin.

Feh, C. (2005). Relationships and communication in socially natural horse herds. In: The Domestic Horse: The Origins, Development, and Management of Its Behaviour. D.S. Mills & S.M. McDonnel (eds). Cambridge University Press. pp. 83-92.

Houpt, K.A. (1981). Equine behavior problems in relation to humane management. International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems 2:6, pp. 329-337.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Rogers, S. (2018). Equine Behaviour in Mind: Applying Behavioural Science to the way we Keep, Work, and Care for Horses, Sheffield, UK: 5m Publishing.

Simpson, H. (2004). Teach Yourself Horse. Haslemere: Horse’s Mouth