Horse pain often obvious, even to the untrained observer

A catalogue of 24 behaviours in horses has been developed to help observers spot when a horse is exhibiting signs of pain.
A catalogue of 24 behaviours in horses has been developed to help observers spot when a horse is exhibiting signs of pain. © Dr Sue Dyson

Identifying low-grade lameness can be challenging, with owners, riders and trainers appearing to have a poor ability to recognise signs of pain when horses are ridden. 

As a result, problems are labelled as training-related, rider-related, behavioural, or “that is just how the horse has always gone”. Consequently pain-related problems often get progressively worse and, if ultimately presented for investigation, the problems may be too chronic to manage satisfactorily.

But a new system for assessing pain in horses has shown that ability to spot initial signs of musculoskeletal pain is now within the grasp of both trained and untrained assessors.

A presentation at this year’s Saddle Research Trust Conference by Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust, showed that even without training it is possible for an assessor to use an ethogram — a catalogue or inventory of behaviours or actions exhibited by an animal — based on 24 ridden behaviours to assess pain and lameness in ridden horses.

Part of the study, Application of a ridden horse ethogram to video recordings of 21 horses before and after diagnostic analgesia: reduction in behaviour scores, expands on the initial work to develop a ridden horse ethogram comprising 24 behaviours which are more likely to be seen in lame horses compared with non-lame horses. The presence of 8 or more behaviours is likely to reflect the presence of pain.

The ethogram was applied to video recordings of 21 horses by a single trained experienced analyst and 10 people who had not undergone specialist training in equine behaviour. The results for the lame horses were compared before and after musculoskeletal pain had been substantially improved using diagnostic analgesia.


While the untrained assessors generally awarded a higher number of behaviours exhibited by the lame horses than the trained assessor, for all observers there was a highly significant decrease in overall behaviour scores after diagnostic analgesia.

“Encouragingly, this study shows that the ethogram can be used by both trained and non-trained assessors,” Dyson said. “However, training of assessors is required for accurate interpretation of all features of the ethogram.”

The clearly measurable changes in behaviour after abolition of musculoskeletal pain provide strong evidence of a causal effect, indicating that the ethogram is not only a good tool for recognition of the presence of musculoskeletal pain, but is also a potentially good tool for monitoring longitudinal progress after treatment.

“Pain in horses has always been elusive because, in their capacity as flight animals, they will naturally conceal it to hide weakness or vulnerability,” Dyson said.

“As our knowledge of the ridden horse’s inherent weight-bearing capacity increases, the ethogram presents a useful monitoring tool: horses in pain may be silent, but behaviour is their voice and we need to listen and be receptive.”

Last weekend’s Saddle Research Trust Conference was sponsored by World Horse Welfare and WOW Saddles.

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