What is Your Horse Trying to Tell You?

Horses’ body language and habits can tell you a lot about their pain levels, moods, and motivations. Learn more in this article from the Fall 2023 issue of The Horse.
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Observe your horse’s habits and body language to determine whether he’s in pain

woman petting horse at fence
Body language is a horse’s primary communication method. Pay attention, and you’ll find horses telling you about their pain levels, moods, and motivations. | Getty images

Debra Sellon, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, often finds herself trying to reverse-engineer her impressions of equine pain. Her students ask her how she knows a horse is in pain, and she stops to consider what she saw in a horse’s body language. And still, she has questions.

“I’ve been a veterinarian now for 40 years, and I’m more uncertain than ever about what I’m seeing,” says Sellon, a professor of equine medicine in Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Pullman.

Over her career she’s noticed a lot of variety in professional assessments on equine pain. “Why would we look at the same ­patient—both very experienced people—and have totally different opinions as to how painful they were?” she asks.

Sellon’s recent research suggests one’s perception of how much pain a horse is experiencing and whether the horse needs pain relief has a lot to do with who you are. In her survey-based study she found:

Horse owners providing high pain ratings were more likely to have fewer than 10 horses and to not have a college degree.

Veterinarians providing high pain ratings were more likely to be employed in a mixed animal practice and to lack board certification in a veterinary specialty.

Veterinarians providing low pain ratings were more likely to be male. (Sellon noted the gender differences might have more to do with graduation date, as the veterinary field trends more female).

She recalls sharing her research during a continuing education event. One audience member, she says, was shocked by the variety in pain scores for common equine ailments. He wondered whether he needed to rethink his interpretation of equine pain behavior. But that type of questioning can be good, she says—it means you’re paying attention

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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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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