Mischief or Malady? Pain Behaviors in Ridden Horses

Pain behaviors in the ridden horse can range from subtle rhythm irregularities to bucking. Read more about the ridden horse pain ethogram in the Riding Horse 2023 Issue of The Horse.

Hannah Knaebel’s mare Brio wasn’t noticeably lame but displayed 12 of the RHPE behaviors. She was ultimately diagnosed with significant stifle pathology. | Photo Courtesy Hannah Knaebel

A list of pain behaviors in ridden horses becomes an accepted tool for understanding them

Brio wasn’t going particularly well under saddle. The 5-year-old mare trotted up and flexed fine. But Hannah Knaebel knew something wasn’t right.

“I couldn’t get answers from the vets as to why she was behaving the way she was,” recalls Knaebel, who has been in the horse industry in various capacities for 30 years.

Then, in 2018 Knaebel came across the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. She knew she was right. Brio was in pain.

Sue Dyson, VetMB, PhD, and other researchers have reported that when a ridden horse exhibits eight or more of the ethogram’s 24 behaviors, there’s a good chance he’s experiencing musculoskeletal pain (TheHorse.com/137071).

In other words, the horse is likely lame.

Brio exhibited 12 of the behaviors, Knaebel says. Her head position was unstable. She kicked out in the canter, cross-fired, and moved on three tracks. Ultimately, nerve blocks and radiographs revealed significant pathologies (disease or damage) in the young mare’s stifles.

Dyson and a small team of researchers released the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram in 2017. Since then additional studies have validated the ethogram as a useful tool for identifying pain in ridden horses and understanding poor

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Written by:

Karen Hopper Usher has a Master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, where she reported for Great Lakes Echo. She previously worked in local news and is a lifelong equestrian.

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