Do you know when your horse is in pain?
Horse Behaviour Horse Training

Do you know when your horse is showing you that she’s in pain?

As a flight animal, your horse’s body will inherently strive to hide any signs of pain for as long as possible.

A little pain doesn’t usually result in big changes and it can be really difficult to spot.

It’s important that you know your horse well and can spot the initial signs of pain or illness. The best way to do this is to observe your horse when she’s healthy so that you can establish what is normal for your horse.

What does a healthy horse look like?

When your horse is healthy and happy she will normally pay attention to the surroundings, have a drive to graze, her eyes will be clear and alert and her ears swivelling around listening to the sounds around her.

Your horse will also be calm (or calm down quite quickly after spooking) and move easily, be interested in other horses, animals and humans and usually always up for one of her favourite treats.

Some horses are more solitary by nature and can be more grumpy and not want others around as much. When this is a question of personality it is perfectly okay.

These kinds of horses may however also be suffering from chronic pain that can be caused by a variety of reasons, such as old age and the problems that come with that, ill-fitting tack, badly fitting shoes or hooves that have not been taken care of properly, muscle tension or unskillful riders that are too forceful, and so on.

Unfortunately, it’s too common that horses who have to live with pain (or fear) are frequently considered “nasty” and their expression of pain is seen as acting out.

Sadly, the response from the humans around the horse is too often to beat the horse into submission with force or violence.

Forcing horses to accept living with pain is never acceptable

It’s important that we learn how to recognise when this has happened. The first rule of a horse that’s in pain is displaying abnormal behaviour.

Too often horses are made to suffer for the sake of what people want. The videos below will give you some examples of how widespread this problem can be.

Cruelty Behind Tennessee Walking Horses, Humane Society of the United States
Horse Drawn Carriage Cruelty, Humane Society of the United States

What are the signs of pain in your horse?

  • Gasping or coughing
  • Colic
  • Hanging the head very low
  • A dull look in the eyes
  • Glazed stare
  • Repeated shaking or tossing of the head
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Restlessness and continuously switching positions
  • Not standing on a certain leg can indicate pain in that leg or foot
  • Being irritable, moody or short-tempered
  • Constantly chewing on the bit
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Irregular temperature
  • Rolling more and longer than usual
  • Limping
  • Snapping at you when you try to touch a certain area
  • An annoyed expression with the ears pinned back
  • Stable vices: cribbing, weaving or air sucking
  • Swishing and wringing the tail constantly
  • Refusing to eat or drink, or excessive drinking
  • Bucking or refusing when being saddled/tacked, lead or ridden
  • Refusing to move
  • Tension in the body
  • Avoiding movement that is painful
  • Avoiding lying down
  • Laboured and increased breathing
  • Biting, nibbling or kicking at the painful area
  • Shortened strides
  • Pacing

Your horse’s tolerance for pain

All horses are individuals and will react differently to pain and have different levels of tolerance for pain.

Older horses may not show signs as easily as younger horses when in pain and sometimes you need to pay close attention in order to know the difference between old age and pain.

It’s important to note that if your horse limps when being led she may not limp when in other situations where she experiences a higher level of adrenaline, for instance when spooked.

This does not mean that she is free of pain, it’s simply her brain preparing her body for flight and she has a higher chance of getting away from the danger if she can feel the pain less.

The feeling of pain will return after the adrenaline has passed, probably even more painful than before, if she exerted herself in a way that she wouldn’t have without the adrenaline rush.

Horses can learn helplessness

Just like humans or any other animals, horses can sink into learned helplessness by experiencing recurring pain.

One common example of this is a hard hand when riding; the constant pulling and tugging on the bit of an unskilled rider will cause the horse to chew on the bit, toss the head and swish the tail in an attempt to get away from the pain.

Unfortunately, people usually respond in force to this instead of considering pain or their own riding skills as the cause for the “bad” behaviour and will typically add more restricting bands and straps to “keep the horse in check”.

Increased kicking and use of the whip are also common responses to a “lazy” or “dull” horse, but anyone rarely asks why the horse is so unwilling to work in the first place.

Certainly, when I was learning how to ride as a child, I was told to kick harder and use my whip on the “lazy” horses without much result.

The sad truth is that many people are taught to ride this way

Riding school horses can often be very dull to gentle aids because they endure so many hard aids and pain as a career hazard.

It is understandable that these horses sink into a kind of protective bubble of numbness in an attempt to get away. This is called learned helplessness and will dull the horse in other areas as well.

It is crucial that all the tack used on a horse fits the horse perfectly, does not cause discomfort or pain when used and is preferred by the horse itself.

It’s the responsibility of the rider to be critical of their own skills and shortcomings and to constantly work towards becoming a better rider.

Horses are wonderful teachers and are always communicating with us, it is our duty to listen and to respond. As with humans, each individual horse is the best expert on what suits him or her best.

Your horse and dental pain

Problems with the teeth often show signs of themselves best when your horse is eating. She might have problems with chewing the food and may drop food out of the mouth unintentionally when eating.

When your horse has dental pain and you put a bit in her mouth it might seem like a temper tantrum when she throws her head, chews and tries to avoid the bit.

If your horse has pain in the mouth it will be impossible to get a steady hand on the reigns and no amount of training will fix the problem.

Horses under the age of five will benefit from having a dental checkup twice a year, after that the horses will have changed out their teeth completely and dental checkups can be done once a year.

However, it is important to keep a check on the teeth yourself between dentist visits. This will allow you to spot any problems early on and save the horse from future pain.

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