Signs of Pain in Horses

Recognizing when a horse is in pain is not just a handy parlor trick. If you can recognize pain in your horse, this can mean the difference in catching a simple ouchie early, or missing a minor affliction and causing a serious injury that sidelines him for months. Moreover, the ability to recognize pain can literally mean life or death for our equine companions. 

Horses do not whimper like dogs or cry like children, their language is far more subtle. A horse owner cannot forget that a horse is a prey animal, and therefore very good at hiding his pain. Wild horses that show pain are easy targets for predators, and risk slowing the whole herd down. For this reason, Nature has adapted horses to be incredibly stoic and not show pain until it is very extreme. It is the responsibility of an owner or handler to recognize what is normal equine behavior and what can be warning signs that something else is wrong.

Obvious signs of pain in horses are often recognized as the classic colic signs

  • frequent, violent tail-swishing and wringing
  • sweating if not working hard
  • pawing and stomping
  • laying down to roll and not shaking off when rising again
  • kicking at the flanks
  • muscle spasms and tightness, especially on the belly and flanks

There are other less commonly known signs of extreme pain as well

  • the flehmen response (curling the upper lip back in a “smile”) if not triggered by a cue or a strange taste or smell
  • straining to urinate
  • grinding teeth
  • standing with the legs at odd angles (rocked backwards, “camped out,” all the legs together under the body like a mountain goat)
  • excessive heat and/or swelling in one place
  • head held lower than the knees
  • stiffness and overall reluctance to move
  • vacant expression in the eyes

Unfortunately, pain in horses is VERY often incorrectly categorized as misbehavior. Changes in fitness, a diet or stabling routine that is not conducive to the horse’s optimum health, veterinary issues, equipment that does not fit properly, and a whole host of other factors can cause discomfort or pain. Horses often express mild, chronic pain in ways that look like stable vices or naughtiness with a rider. For example, if a horse suddenly starts dropping its grain or yanking its head away when bridled, those can be signs of hooks and sharp edges on teeth, which cause mouth pain. Dangerous behavior (bucking, bolting, rearing, etc.) under saddle, resistance to girth tightening, head tossing and tail-wringing may all be signs of a poorly fitting saddle, gastric ulcers, or ovarian cysts in mares.  It is important to have a veterinary exam, check with an expert that all tack fits and is properly adjusted, and to have someone watch the horse working to see if there are signs of pain. This is especially important if the horse’s workload has increased, it has gained or lost muscle, or there is some change in its environment. Where Does My Horse Hurt? offers a user-friendly, do-it-yourself way to determine where your horse is in pain from a chiropractic perspective. To learn more about veterinary issues, including how to recognize the signs that your horse may be suffering from a painful illness or injury, The Horse Owner’s Veterinary Handbook is one of the best on the market.

It cannot be stressed enough, the best way to recognize if a horse is in pain is to know what normal horse behavior is. For that, The Equine Behavior Guide is a great resource. Written for veterinarians, it is a comprehensive guide to equine behavior that goes into great detail about the behavior and its possible causes. If you are looking for a field guide to equine behavior rather than a veterinary textbook, A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior is an invaluable asset.

Lameness is a sneaky, frustrating problem with no end to possible solutions. Is your horse limping because of his hooves, legs, shoulders, hips, or back? Is it a soft tissue injury, a blocked nerve, arthritis? Which leg is bothering him? While lameness can only be completely diagnosed by a full lameness exam by a vet, Equine Lameness for the Layman is full of diagrams and information to help diagnose lameness in your horse. It can help you give your vet more complete information before determining a treatment plan.

If your horse is showing signs of pain, the best way to determine its severity is to measure his TPR:

  • Temperature (should be between 99.5 – 100.5 degrees F or 37-38 degrees C)
  • Pulse (should be 28-42 beats per minute or BPM)
  • Respiration (should be 8-12 breaths per minute)

If you suspect your horse is in pain, the first thing to do is measure his TPR. For measuring pulse and respiration, you can count for 15 seconds and multiply the result by four. If any of these values are well above the numbers given above, he is probably in a lot of pain. You can learn the proper methods for measuring all of these here and in the book The Complete Equine Emergency Bible. It is important that your barn first aid kit (for a complete kit, check out this one   and see our article comparing the best kits here) also contain a digital thermometer and a stethoscope. This wound cream not only has antibiotic and skin healing ingredients, it contains a topical anesthetic which numbs the area to pain, so it is perfect for small cuts and scrapes.

Conclusion

The first and main rule in recognizing pain is to know your own horse inside and out. Know his normal behavior, facial expressions, posture, and habits.  For detecting pain in horses, there are several resources and tools that can help us, but nothing replaces our own hands and eyes. The first indicator that there may be pain occurring somewhere is any change that makes you think, “Huh… that’s weird. Why are you doing that?” As with everything, having a deep relationship with your horse is the best way to not only keep him happy and healthy, but give you the greatest chance to fix his problems as quickly as possible.

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