Scientists Study Facial Expressions of Pain in Ridden Horses

Ridden horses express pain through facial behaviors differently from horses at rest, one researcher says.
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Scientists Study Facial Expressions of Pain in Ridden Horses
Some signs of pain or discomfort in ridden horses—which can be influenced by the tack they wear—include pinned-back ears. | iStock
Scientists have already described how to spot signs of pain, such as from colic or castration, in horses by their facial expressions. But what about recognizing pain signals in ridden horses?

British researchers say identifying the facial expressions of pain in mounted horses requires a whole new set of observation skills. And their research group is working to produce just that.

“I have used these observations of behavior for years, and they really help me determine when musculoskeletal pain is the underlying cause of poor performance,” said Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, Head of Clinical Orthopedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, United Kingdom.

In this first of a four-part study, Dyson and colleagues developed an ethogram—a behavior observation “checklist”—for recognizing facial expressions in ridden horses. They based their ethogram on published descriptions of facial behaviors and studying photographs of 150 lame and sound ridden horses, she said

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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