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How To Determine if Your Horse is in Pain

How To Determine if Your Horse is in Pain

Health & Safety

There are times when it can be really hard to determine if a horse is experiencing pain and all too often bad behaviour on their part is attributed to them having an unruly or nasty"" character. If the truth be known, this unwanted behaviour whether it's flattening of the ears as you approach them, a swishing of the tail if you pass too close to their hind quarters or a buck when you are on their backs, could be due to the fact they are in pain.

People who know horses well recognise equine body language quite easily and this includes any facial expressions like grimaces or the way a horse presents itself body-wise to them. However, for the uninitiated, horses and ponies can be pretty hard to read and understand. This often means pain is misinterpreted as a horse being downright naughty when in fact, they need to be seen by a vet, dentist or blacksmith and then be given the right kind of pain relief medication to cope with the discomfort they're feeling.

Obvious Signs of Pain in Horses

There are obvious signs that a horse might be feeling pain which includes them being lame and therefore unsound. The cause could be diagnosed by a vet or a blacksmith and which may well confirms the horse is suffering from a corn, an abscess or maybe there's a foreign object lodged in the sole of their foot which is not only extremely painful but could lead to a serious infection if not treated in a timely fashion. However, horses are often lame and nobody can get to the bottom of why this is so – not even vets.

No So Obvious Signs of Discomfort

Sometimes horses may have a strange gait or short step which comes and goes and which their owners accept as just being the way their mounts are put together. As such they do nothing about it and instead decide to put up with a little bad behaviour which could be in the form of a buck, dropping a shoulder or just refusing to go forward.

This type of behaviour could well be due to the fact they are being naughty or it could be because they are in pain. The pain could be in their backs or any other area of their bodies. It could also be due to an ill-fitting saddle and badly fitted bit or tight shoes that have been left on for too long, all of which can cause the horse or pony a lot of pain.

The Four Signs to Watch Out For

There are 4 signs to look out for which could indicate whether or not your horse is feeling any pain which are as follows:

  • A marked decrease in normal movement and activity – this could be they are unable to keep up with the rest of their field companions when out at pasture or they may not be so inclined to roll in a favourite place etc.
  • You may find your horse standing with their head in a lowered position – this is a clear indication they are in pain and if they are holding it lower than the level of their knees, this is a bad sign and you need to call a vet straight away
  • A vacant stare – if your horse stares vacantly off into the far distance and not interested in anything that's going on around them – they are in pain
  • A reluctance to move – if your horse or pony looks stiff and doesn't even want to be led out of their stable or move in any way, shape or form – they are in pain

New Research Called the ""Grimace Scale""

Studies have been carried out to develop a ""grimace scale"" in order to help people identify when horses are experiencing pain. The results of the research were published in an online journal called PLoS One and it involved a number of horses that were separated into three groups namely A, B and C.

  • There were 19 horses in Group A and all of them underwent a routine castration which was carried out under a general anaesthetic. The horses were given a pain relief injection before they were given the anaesthetic
  • In Group B there were 21 horses all of which underwent a routine castration with a pain relief injection being given prior to the operation and then oral pain relief six hours after the surgery had taken place
  • In Group C there were 6 horses all of which underwent a non-invasive procedure and were given the same pain relief treatment as Group A. However, they did not undergo the same surgical procedure which would automatically be accompanied by a certain amount of post surgery pain

The images of each horse were compared before and after they had received their surgery as a way of identifying and distinguishing the differences in their facial expressions. These images were examined by a trained blind observer who was highly qualified in identifying facial expressions and minute changes that occurred in other species of animals (MCL).

The studies came up with the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) based on the comparisons arrived at and consists of 6 facial action units (FAUs) which are as follows:

  • Stiff ears in backward position
  • Orbital tightening
  • Tension seen above the eye areas
  • Strained prominent chewing muscles
  • Strained, tense mouth and pronounced chin
  • Strained, tense nostrils and flattening of the horse's profile

This new ""grimace scale"" is seen as an extremely useful tool that should help horse owners and other people who regularly deal and handle equines understand and appreciate when they are in pain and to what extent this pain is interfering with a normal and comfortable life. This in turn should help people address the problem when a horse is in pain and therefore contact a vet, blacksmith or equine dentist earlier rather than later which means the horse would not have to put up with any discomfort for longer than necessary.