I am constantly amazed at the willingness of most horses, and the amount of discomfort they generally put up with before they will let us know. Whilst there is always the possibility of a horse with a naughty pre-disposition, more often than not when a horse displays significant behavior, they are actually trying to tell us something. It is easy to get trapped in the routine of saying ‘he always does this’ or ‘just ride him through it’. Without the ability for verbal communication, It is absolutely essential for horse owners to be aware of how facial expression, behaviors and movement restrictions may indicate discomfort or pain. By being in tune with your horse, recognizing and respecting certain behaviors that appear unusual, you may be able to address small issues before they become larger problems. There is large benefit in pro-actively assessing and monitoring our horses and looking out for the signs, rather than waiting for them to become in enough pain to be obviously lame. Knowing how to read your horse and recognize signs of pain is particularly important in preventing significant injury, and moreover remains our responsibility as owners to instill welfare throughout management and performance activities involved with husbandry and horsemanship. Additionally, being aware of signs of pain or discomfort are also a good way to understand how your horse responds to increase in exercise load or a new activity.

Is your horse particularly naughty to pick out his hind hooves, or shoe on a particular hind limb? Perhaps he has significant stability or pain issues relating to a sacroiliac dysfunction. Is your horse girthy and snakey to tack up? Perhaps he has a really sore back from a poorly fitted saddle. Or maybe he flinching or ‘hates his ears being touched’… he is potentially experiencing a raging headache from a neck related issue. These signs of behavior certainly don’t mean that your horse has ‘this issue’, but it should flag to you that something could be causing discomfort, and may need to be screened by your qualified health practitioner. Horses are best to interact with and perform best when they are feeling good. Therefore, it is in your best interest to ensure you horse remains comfortable and free of pain.

Facial expressions have long been used in human health to effectively assess a range of painful conditions, from mild to severe pain. Similarly, (Mullard et al 2017) developed an equine ethogram which has been found and effective and practical method in detecting equine pain as well as determining the efficacy of the methods we use to ameliorate pain in horses. If your horse is beginning to display symptoms similar to these, you may need to consult your equine health practitioner.

This ethogram covers 24 behaviors listed below, of these, 20 have a strong correlation to lameness (Mullard et al., 2017). If horses exhibit approximately 8 or more behaviors, it is highly indicative that this horse is experiencing musculoskeletal pain (Mullard et al., 2017). One study which investigated correlations between ethogram scores and 5-star eventing performance found a significant relationship between low ethogram scores and final placings (Dyson and Ellis, 2020). There were moderate correlations between dressage penalty scores and ethogram scores and horses that failed to complete the cross-country phase had higher scores compared with those that completed (Dyson and Ellis, 2020).

  • Repeated changes of head position not in rhythm with trot
  • Head tilted
  • Head in front of vertical > 10s
  • Head behind vertical >10s
  • Tossing head
  • Ears rotated back behind vertical or flat >5s
  • Eyelids closed 2-5 seconds or frequent blinking
  • Sclera (white of eye) exposed repeatedly
  • Intense stare or glazed expression >5s
  • Mouth opening/separation of teeth repeatedly for 10 seconds
  • Tongue exposed protruding or hanging out
  • Tail clamped to middle or carried to the side
  • Tail swishing large and repeated movements during transitions
  • Rushed gait, irregular rhythm
  • Hindlimbs do not follow tracks of forelimbs
  • Wrong canter lead or disuniting
  • Spontaneous changes of gait i.e breaking from canter
  • Stumbles or trips more than once, toe dragging
  • Sudden change of direction against rider cues (Spooking)
  • Reluctance to move forwards
  • Rearing
  • Bucking or kicking backwards
    (Mullard et al., 2017)
    Dyson, S. and Ellis, A.D. (2020) “Application of a ridden horse pain ethogram to horses competing at
    5‐Star three‐day‐events: Comparison with performance,” Equine Veterinary Education, 34(6), pp.
    Dyson, S. and Pollard, D. (2021) “Application of the ridden horse pain ethogram to elite dressage
    horses competing in World Cup Grand Prix competitions,” Animals, 11(5), p. 1187.
    Mullard, J. et al. (2017) “Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses
    (fereq),” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 18, pp. 7–12.
    Dalla Costa, E., Stucke, D., Dai, F., Minero, M., Leach, M.C., Lebelt, D. (2016) “Using the Horse Grimace
    Scale (HGS) to Assess Pain Associated with Acute Laminitis in Horses (Equus caballus).” Animals.
    6(8):47. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani6080047
    Dyson, S. and Van Dijk, J. (2018) “Application of a ridden horse ethogram to video recordings of 21
    horses before and after diagnostic analgesia: Reduction in behaviour scores,” Equine Veterinary
    Education, 32(S10), pp. 104–111.
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