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Pain in horses

Of course we don't want our horses to experience pain. We would also never do anything that intentionally hurts them or ignore the pain they feel, right?

However, recognizing pain in horses is not as easy as most think. Horses are very good at hiding their pain. The conditioning of the horses AND the humans also help to quickly overlook pain.

We quickly transfer our concepts of "showing no weakness" and "going through it" to our pets. And because horses can't literally talk to us, it manifests itself in pain, muscle tension and behavior that we didn't learn to interpret correctly when we started riding lessons at the equestrian centers.



Pain and the evolution

Pain is part of life just like birth and death. Every sentient being will experience pain in his life. Pain defines our limits and keeps us alive. Pain is the signal to avoid things that can harm us. That applies to all life forms on this earth.

How the pain manifests itself then depends on the species. But all mammals are made of the same components of tissue and nervous system. Bones, muscles, skin and nerves experience the same influences of cold, warmth, heat, dryness - and pain. A bruised joint will feel the same for humans, dogs, cats and horses. Only one species can talk about it and let the other know “hey, this hurts”.

But besides our language, there is more that determines how pain is expressed. We, as humans, have evolved consciousness to put ourselves above our instincts and think "logically". About how the pain started, what it means, how we can make it go away and how we can best avoid the pain in the future - or not. We can also choose to push through for a greater cause - or to throw in the towel.

Animals can't do that - in us, all of this takes place in the prefrontal cortex that is not as much developed in animals. So animals rely on their emotions and instincts in all situations.

Compare the amount of color in each brain and you realize which parts have the most influence.

What could pain mean to an animal?

Right, the difference between life and death.

Both, a prey and a predator are in great danger if they are paralyzed by pain.

A prey animal such as the horse that can no longer walk with the herd due to pain, will not be able to survive for long. The horse's instincts ensure that the pain is felt, but not expressed. The horse should keep walking as best it can - and not show that he is the weakest link at the moment. Any noise or stumbling will betray him to potential predators.

In addition, the social structures come into effect. Horses are social animals, they adapt to the expectations and needs of the entire herd. Their own needs come second. Humans and horses also form temporary herds and the horses quickly learn to fulfill the expectations and needs of humans (the herd). They have to 'function' otherwise everyone is at risk.

And on top of that, conditioning often plays a role: if you don't walk (also under pain), a punishment follows (= more pain).

How do I recognize pain in horses?

Showing pain in horses also has nuances. You have acute and chronic pain of varying degrees. This can usually be recognized by certain muscle tension and behaviour.

Acute pain and injuries are usually easy to see, this is the extreme stage of the pain gauge and the most serious. If this pain is ignored, most likely the worst case scenario will occur: the horse will die.

We clearly recognize acute pain in bone fractures, internal injuries and also severe colic.

But here, too, there have been cases where fractures and colic have been overlooked. Fractures in the hip, for example, are difficult to recognize and stories have already surfaced of show jumpers who even run a course with fractures.

The most well-known behavior in colic is lying down - standing up, rolling over and looking at the abdomen. You can also recognize colic by the posture and muscle tone of a horse.

Chronic pain is evident in laminitis horses who try to lighten their weight on the hooves by leaning back and walking sensitively. And of course with horses that are lame and nodding.

These are the extreme cases of showing pain - when it is really no longer possible to hide. However, pain starts much earlier and in many different ways. The horse's body is a wholistic system where everything is connected. Problems in the legs, bones or muscles can also manifest themselves elsewhere in certain behaviors or tensions.

Examples from the equestrian world

  • A horse suddenly starts to hang its tongue out of the corner of its mouth while being ridden. The rider notices and has the horse's mouth checked. Neither vet nor osteopath can find a cause. Even after treatment of the hyoid bone, it does not get better. The rider decides to just tighten the flash strap a bit so that the horse can no longer stick the tongue out of its mouth. Months later, with another examination, a problem in the carpal joint is coincidentally determined, which causes the horse enormous pain and as a result of which he tries to relieve his forehand by any means.

  • Or this one horse in the stable that cannot be ridden without a whip. Because otherwise he won't take a step and won't gallop anyway. Statements such as “he needs to know who's boss, you just have to push through” are fatal. When he starts walking, you see how he takes a step in front of the other with a high head, swishing tail and hollow back. His ears are back, the nose is wide, the eyes show white.

  • A young horse that was broken in last year and is making promising progress in dressage suddenly starts to get restless when mounting. And also in the exercises he seems a bit lazier and disobedient. He no longer accepts aids well and his gaits are no longer so spacious. The rider is convinced that it cannot be a physical problem, because the saddle was completely measured and adjusted last year.

It is often said here: “as long as he still goes, it is not too bad”.

Signs of pain

You have already found some signals and signs of pain in the examples. A major pitfall in recognizing this is the belief that horses can be "naughty" and do things on purpose to get off work - simply because they are lazy. But if we reread the above about the prefrontal cortex, the instincts and emotions of horses, it quickly becomes clear that these assumptions stem from 'anthropomorphism', the attribution of human characteristics to non-human beings.

Following is a list of signs. But keep in mind that these signs are often not stand alone and the whole situation needs to be looked at. A signal alone says very little about the condition of the horse.

Signs of pain we can recognize in muscle tension:

In the face there are many fine and clear muscles to be seen. A horse with chronic or acute pain often has

  • the ears back,

  • a deep hollow above the eye,

  • triangular eyes,

  • white around the eye,

  • introverted eyes,

  • or half-closed eyes,

  • tense muscle jaws,

  • veins that show,

  • narrow nasal passages with wrinkles above the nose,

  • a poiny nose,

  • tight lips tight together,

  • or an open mouth,

  • a poiny triangular chin.

The body shows tension in

  • a stretched, thin neck,

  • a high head posture,

  • lifted legs,

  • wide legs,

  • crippled walk to relieve,

  • a hollow back,

  • change in breathing,

  • tense abdomen,

  • veins showing on the abdomen and hindquarters,

  • slumped, tightened hip,

  • swishing tail.

Signs of pain we can recognize in behavior:
  • shaking the head,

  • a lot of yawning and jaw stretching,

  • playing with the tongue,

  • chattering teeth (chewing air),

  • repeatedly stumbling,

  • sweating,

  • nervousness, sensitivity, easily startled,

  • scratching with the hooves, pawing,

  • avoiding the human being or touch,

  • snapping and biting,

  • turning the hindquarters to threaten,

  • not wanting to walk,

  • bolting,

  • to freeze,

  • not wanting to eat,

  • general disinterest and little interaction.

Every change in a horse's behavior has a meaning. Often this is directly linked to physical problems, especially when it comes to riding horses.

But there is one more aspect that we must not forget.

Emotional pain

The horse's body is a complex system with interrelated functions that always influence each other. The brain is the guiding component in this - as with all living beings.

The brain of a horse is not influenced by the prefrontal cortex, which can make logical decisions, produces thoughts, creates an ego and influences our personality with all its brooding loops of the past, present and future. Horses live and are governed by emotions and the action and reaction to their world. The brain is closely intertwined with the body (literally: the nerves of the brain and spine run throughout the body), and therefore also with the emotions that a horse experiences. The brain itself does not distinguish between pain caused by a stimulus on the skin or pain caused by unmet need or fear. The nerves that communicate the pain in the brain from a hard blow with the whip are the same ones that become active when the horse just sees that whip fly by the next day. Physical pain quickly manifests itself as emotional pain.

A horse that shows the aforementioned signs of pain still experiences pain although the physical trigger does not exist (anymore). So the signs of this can still be taken seriously. Just as a wound needs time and care to heal, so does the brain need time and care to break these connections.

A horse that has been whipped for years will continue to fear the whip for years after the abuse if no one helps him to overcome this. You can still use the whip as a threat without even touching the horse with it. Just the presence of the whip makes the horse nervous or shows any of the named signals.

Or that horse that for years had to walk with an ill-fitting saddle and has developed saddle sourness. Even though the saddle is now good, the muscles and vertebrae have been restored and all blockages have been resolved. Usually the saddle sour horses still exhibit the same behavior of nipping, chewing, flehmen and tail swishing.

The horse mind doesn't adjust - it experiences exactly the same pain right now as it did with the wrong saddle.

The horse still FEELS stress and pain right now, whether this is reasonable for us or not.

From an evolutionary point of view this is of course reasonable. If an animal experiences that alligators are always lurking at a certain spot by the river and has already caught a buddy, that animal will activate its fight or flight system when it comes close to this spot to eliminate possible threats from the to go away - before ever seeing an alligator himself. This is how all animals learn and what keeps them alive.

Only horses no longer live in a natural world - but in one created by us.

It is therefore our responsibility to make this as pleasant and understandable as possible for them. And that starts with understanding how horses learn, live, understand and how we can adapt to them - not the other way around.


It is therefore also our duty to notice pain in our horses and to investigate. Horses are in our care and they depend on our knowledge, skills and goodwill to care for them.

Pain can be a confrontational subject and often no one wants to consciously harm their horse. Yet it can happen. It is therefore important that you can forgive yourself for that if you notice it too late.

You can always continue to learn and improve the lives of your horses.

And just as important it is to carry this outside to improve the lives of sport horses and equestrian center horses. Often it is simply a lack of knowledge and no ill will. I believe we are already on the right track here.

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