Ouch? How to Tell if Your Horse is in Pain

Pain can be difficult to determine in horses, mainly due to their inability to communicate with us in a way we easily understand, which means that sometimes, minor pain can go undiscovered until it becomes worse. This article investigates evidence that is helping us understand our horses better.

Identifying when a horse is in pain can be challenging. Firstly, horses are prey animals and as such, they have mechanisms in place which minimise any displays of pain [1]. Secondly, horses don’t communicate in the same way we do so while they might tell us they are in pain we don’t often understand them until the pain gets worse or until it turns into a behavioural problem.


The Equine Pain Face

In 2015 Katrina Gleerup and associates [2] conducted a study on the facial expressions that horses have in reaction to pain. The researchers used the composite measure pain scale to analyse the horse’s behavioural changes and facial expressions [2]. Gleerup and associates found 3 major areas on the horse’s face that can be used as indicators for pain:

  • Ears: When in pain, the horse’s ears tended to droop downwards with an outward rotation [2]. The movement of the horse’s ears changed throughout the session, but when in pain they tended to be more asymmetrical and lower, rather than forward and attentive [2].
  • Eyes: When in pain, the muscles around the horse’s eyes tightened, giving the top of the eyelid an angled appearance [2]. The horse’s stare became withdrawn and intense, rather than relaxed [2].
  • Lower Face: When in pain, the horse’s nostrils widened and expanded, changing from the usually elongated shape to more of a square shape [2]. There was tension in the lips and chin, creating a more edged shape of the muzzle, and there was an overall tightness in the face muscles, some of which may have been due to a clenched jaw [2].

Gleerup, K, Forkman, B, Lindegaard, C & Anderson, P 2015, ‘An equine pain face’, Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 42, p. 109

Using this study, massage therapists, veterinarians, farriers, dentists, other equine specialists and owners are now able to identify when their horse may be in pain and therefore be able to resolve the issue while it is still small. Gleerup and associates aren’t the only ones who have researched the identification of pain within the horse. Many researchers have created pain scales that aid in determining the pain levels of horses for a range of issues such as colic, castration, musculoskeletal pain, and after surgery [3]. In the papers that analyse facial features for pain indicators, they mostly agree on the same features listed above. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the pain indicators from the many research papers listed here, however, if you are interested in an overview, I suggest looking at the van Loon and van Dierendonck paper listed in the references [3].


Pain or Neuroticism?

Lameness is commonly used by horse owners to find tissue damage within their horse, the more lameness the horse presents with, the more damage there is likely to be. However, a recent study conducted by Carrie Ijichi and associates [4] found that there was no correlation between lameness and the severity of the injury. Instead, they found that the horse’s personality had a larger influence over how lame the horse appeared [4].

Horses with neurotic tendencies were found to be less tolerant to pain and therefore are more likely to show signs of serious lameness for less severe injuries [4]. While this seems bad, neurotic horses are more likely to get treatment sooner due to their over-reaction and are more likely to reduce movement in the lame area for fear of re-injury [4]. They also found that extroverted horses were more likely to display lameness rather than introverted horses, who may hide their suffering [4].

In conclusion, it can be difficult to identify whether your horse is experiencing any pain, however, analysis of your horse’s facial expressions may aid in the early identification of future problems. It is also important that you know the personality of your horse, as they may try to hide their symptoms or exaggerate the pain they are in.

Other Articles That Might Interest You:


[1] Taylor, P.M, Pascoe, P.J & Mama, K.R 2002, ‘Diagnosing and treating pain in the horse. Where are we today?’, The Veterinary Clinics: Equine Practice, vol. 18, pp. 1 – 19

[2] Gleerup, K, Forkman, B, Lindegaard, C & Anderson, P 2015, ‘An equine pain face’, Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 42, pp. 103 – 114

[3] van Loon, J.P.A.M & van Dierendonck, M.C 2018, ‘Objective pain assessment in horses’, The veterinary journal, vol. 242, pp. 1 – 7

[4] Ijichi, C, Collins, L & Elwood, R 2014, ‘Pain expression is linked to personality in horses’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 152, pp. 38 – 43