Recognizing Facial Expressions of a Horse in Pain - New Diagnostic Tool

Is horse in pain?
Is horse in pain? kc bligbi

Newsdate: June 12, 2018, 9:00 am
Location: FAIRFIELD, California

“I hurt.” Your horse can’t voice what it is feeling but it is likely that pain is written all over their face. And it’s up to you to read it.

Vet examining horse for pain source.

Vet examining horse for pain source

Equitopia releases Part 3 in Diagnosing Subtle Lameness Series: Recognizing facial expressions of a horse in pain.
© 2012 by Shutterstock

“Horses are trying to talk to us,” says equine orthopaedics expert, Dr. Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, UK. A change in behavior and performance is not simply being grumpy or naughty, or our not riding it correctly: “It’s telling us that it is in pain and we need to recognize that early and act accordingly.”

Working with a team of professionals including Dr. Dyson and veterinary behaviorist Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, Equitopia founder Caroline Hegarty and Padma Video have produced Recognizing Facial Expressions of a Horse in Pain, Part 3 in its four-part series, Recognizing Subtle Lameness.

A free link to Recognizing Facial Expressions of a Horse in Pain is available here:

“The science of behavior offers some great tools in recognizing anxiety and discomfort in horses,” says Hegarty. Reading facial expressions correctly is a vital preventative tool in identifying pain early and minimizing its escalation into greater, more costly, damage.

The video cites the result of studies with 100s of riding horses and the conclusion, Dr. Berger says, is that about 30% of horses demonstrating refusal behavior have an underlying medical condition.

Recognizing Facial Expresses of a Horse in Pain shares how the Equitopia team created an ethogram, or behavioral catalog, that could be studied objectively to ascertain pain and/or subtle lameness. Drs. Berger and Dyson also saw changes in facial expressions, after the use of pain-blocking analgesics, among horses initially suffering.

What does pain look like? Among the expressions cataloged were ears pinned back, intense yet blank eyes, blinking or shutting eyes, wrinkled or flared nostrils, a tipped head and/or neck, and an open mouth, exposing teeth and gums, or the tongue sticking out.

The study proves deep connection between pain and fear. “Muscle tension,” Dr. Berger says, “is a physiological response to internal (pain) and external threats (fear). Both behaviors evolved in the horse to protect its body.” A horse in pain can build an association between its pain and its potential source, be it a person, piece of tack or tool. It is essential to recognize and assuage the emotional response before an escalation in pain becomes an escalation in difficult behavior.

“Tension is not normal. It reveals underlying pain,” says Dr. Dyson. Comparatively, to recognize happiness just look at the soft, sweet expression on your horse’s face as it grazes.

What Equitopia achieves in this 10-minute video is twofold: Improving equine welfare physiologically by helping people detect lameness and pain early and prevent more damage, as well as offering horses a profound psychological defense against so-called ‘bad’ behavior. Berger says, “This makes us stop using labels, or punitive methods and tools to get a horse to do what we want it to do.”

Join Equitopia on its path of compassionate horsemanship and watch for Part 4, on rehabilitation after injury, featuring seven international experts, coming soon. Find Recognizing Subtle Signs of Lameness free on YouTube. An Equitopia membership is just $4.95/month to access its complete video library, get discounts on live events and online courses, and get a live consult with one of its internationally renowned experts. Go to

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EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.