Identifying Behavioral Pain Indicators in Ridden Horses

Researchers found that both trained and untrained individuals can use a ridden horse ethogram to identify behaviors likely indicative of musculoskeletal pain, but being educated about the ethogram produces the best results.
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pain in ridden horses
Behavioral signs of pain can be subtle, such as ear-pinning, keeping the eyes slightly closed, and keeping his head in front of the vertical. | Photo: Courtesy Dr. Sue Dyson

Your horse might buck if a bug bites, swish his tail if you give a whip-tap on his haunches, or show the whites of his eyes if he spots a very scary object. But one researcher recently reported that if these behaviors become regular occurrences, especially without provocation, your horse is probably trying to tell you he’s in pain.

In a series of studies over the past few years, Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVSMR, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K., and colleagues developed and validated an ethogram for ridden horses—a catalog of behaviors a horse might display under saddle and what they mean. She designed the ethogram to help identify low-grade lameness or pain in ridden horses.

In her most recent study Dyson compared horse behavior and pain scores before and after diagnostic analgesia (nerve blocks given during a lameness exam) to see if individuals with no specific training on the ethogram could use it to reliably recognize pain in horses working under saddle. She shared the results at the 2018 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in San Francisco, California

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Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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