Equine Pain: Are we missing the signs?

It is a real shame that our horses can’t tell us they are in pain, where the pain is or how painful something is. As a result we may miss when they are actually experiencing pain. Which as a horse owner I hate the idea of. The last thing I want is my horse suffering because I was unable to identify when something was not quite right. Well there may be a way of identifying pain in your equine friend. Read on to find out more

Horses tend to be described as stoic creatures. What is meant by this some may say? Well, horses are a herd animal and as a result they tend not to show when they are in pain, or sore, so that predators don’t single them out. It helps them survive, as a result it makes it quite difficult as owners to see if they are in pain. Some horses are more stoic than others.

So how as owners can we read the subtle signs horses might give out when they are is discomfort or pain? Lameness is often a big sign that something is wrong but can we identify the issue before the lameness becomes so apparent, well yes we can.

Sue Dyson and colleagues have been carrying out numerous studies to identify behavioural markers, that can help predict lameness and musculoskeletal pain being experienced by horses. It is termed the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram and consists of 24 behaviours that consistently predict lameness in horses. Generally if there are more than 8 of these behaviours then the horse is considered to be in pain and there is probably an underlying lameness which may not be apparent to untrained eye

These behaviours include some of the following;

  • Ears back
  • Mouth open
  • Tongue out
  • Tilting the head
  • Crookedness
  • Tail swishing
  • Clamping tail
  • Holding tail to one side
  • Head tossing
  • Head under or over the vertical/bit
  • Unwillingness to go forward
  • Resistance
  • Stumbling
  • Toe drag
  • Intense stare
  • Eyelid half closed
  • White of the eye showing
  • Spontaneously changing gait
  • Bit pulled through to one side
  • Poor quality canter
  • Hurrying
  • Bucking/rearing

These are all behaviours that our horses have exhibited at some point but this may only be for seconds, however if for instance the ears are back for longer than 10 seconds and regularly through a ride then this may be a sign that something is uncomfortable for them.

Horses are not inherently naughty, and if people or you are describing your horse like this then perhaps they are experiencing musculoskeletal discomfort. As horse owners we need to make it a priority to be better at identifying pain related behaviours and this will allow our horses to lead a much better quality of life.

By knowing the behaviours above, you as an owner can identify any potential musculoskeletal issues sooner, which in the long run may reduce vet bills. If your horse isn’t showing any lameness but is exhibiting some of the above behaviours, either regularly, or perhaps they have occurred out of the blue, then your horse may benefit from a soft tissue therapist (equine massage therapist/bodyworker) to come and relieve any musculoskeletal soreness. This is something that all horses in regular work should get.

This post isn’t to scare you as an owner but to make you more aware. You don’t all need to think that you have to stop riding your horses because they show some of the above behaviours. Horses like humans can have muscle soreness from exercise or something they may have done that they are not used to. Humans, however are able to do something about this unlike horses. So it maybe that as an owner you make sure your horse gets regular bodywork, or that you stretch your horse and give them days where you ride them on a lose rein to help them recover.

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