Recognizing Pain in Stoic Horses

Some horses readily express their discomfort. Others are quieter. Learn to look for subtle signs of pain in your horse.
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Recognizing Pain in Stoic Horses
Becoming familiar with your horse's typical behavior will help you recognize changes in facial expression, body posture, and activity levels that signal pain or discomfort. | Photo: iStock
Q.My new horse’s previous owner said he is very stoic when he doesn’t feel good or is in pain. Are there any subtle behavioral signs I can watch for to indicate that he’s uncomfortable?

Sarah, Westborough, Massachusetts

A.Judging the level of pain or discomfort a horse experiences can be a challenge for anybody. We have to rely on behavioral signs that differ among horses and change across situations. Responses to pain include active behavioral indicators (such as ear-pinning, flank-biting, and lameness), or suppression of behavior; stoic horses fall into this latter group. This lack of expression could indicate a higher tolerance, but suppressing signs of pain might also reflect an evolved survival strategy in prey animals, including horses, because it hides vulnerability in the presence of predators1.

The horse can reveal pain, fear, irritation, and contentment through its body language. Some aspects of these emotional states are involuntary and impossible for even the most stoic horse to suppress

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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