Identifying Low Grade Pain and Lameness in Horses

by | Sep 21, 2023 | Equine Therapy

What is normal for your horse? Is your horse grumpy, unwilling? Does he throw his head, pull back his ears, get tense? Does he kick or bite at you when you tighten the girth? And are you constantly struggling to get into competition, to perform consistently or just to enjoy your horse?

These behaviours are not normal, nor are they a sign that you have a ‘bad’ horse. They are clear and consistent signs of pain and discomfort in your partner.


The research

Over a period of three years, looking at 600 different horses, and building research project on research project, Dr Sue Dyson set out to determine whether the behaviours she was seeing in ridden horses indeed indicated the presence of pain, or a low-grade lameness. And the definitive answer is ‘Yes.’

Horses with a low-grade lameness were ten times more likely to display behaviours we would commonly classify as resistance, naughtiness, or dominance. In fact, horses with a low grade of lameness would reliably show a combination of eight or more of these behaviours in comparison to horses that are sound.

The verdict is out. These horses are in pain.

Yes, certainly some problems can be related to training. Absolutely, they can be related to the tack or the rider. But when it comes to investigating and diving into the reasons behind the behaviour, pain must be at the top of our list, and needs to be ruled out before we consider other causes.


The behaviour

Dr Sue Dyson and her team identified 24 different behaviours that can be indicative of pain. Behaviours as subtle and as simple as holding the head above the vertical, an open mouth, closed eyes, keeping the ears pointed backwards for more than five seconds, or holding the tail in a certain position.

There are 24 of these behaviours. When they combine, there can only be one conclusion – this horse is in pain.


Can you see it?

If you are a rider, or a trainer, or a horseman of any kind, I have no doubt that you are dedicated to the welfare, health and soundness of your horses. I know your horses speak to a part of your heart and soul that nothing else can, and more than anything, you want them to flourish, feel great, and be at their very best.

And so you probably already know when something is wrong. You have probably felt that something was amiss for a long time – you just didn’t know what it was. Maybe you have had your horse checked, and he passed his vetting. Your trainer keeps telling you to ride through it, that your horse is being naughty. And so you listen, and try to ignore it.


Where to now?

If you have already been to your vet, and your horse was given the all-clear, you may not know where to go from here to find the cause of the pain. Here is what I suggest.

  1. Check your tack. How does your horse behave in a different bit, bridle and saddle? Does the problem persist when any of these elements are changed?
  2. Ask a more experienced rider to ride your horse. How does your horse respond? It is important that the rider doesn’t try to force the horse to do or be anything; a good rider can often mask a problem through skill, which is not helpful in this case. Ask them to feel for symmetry in your horse’s responses, and for a general willingness to respond.
  3. Go back to your vet, and tell them that you are concerned. You need more information, or a specialist opinion. If you don’t want to go straight to a lameness specialist, skip to the next step.
  4. See an equine Vetrehabber. Send them a video of your horse being ridden and share your concerns. What are the behaviours that are bothering you, how is your horse’s performance? Give them as much information as you can!
  5. Your Vetrehabber will perform a full assessment, looking at your horse in motion, assessing the whole body for any abnormalities. They will probably be able to narrow down the biggest areas of concern.
  6. Now, together with your Vetrehabber, go to a specialist. Allow them to work together to find the cause of your horse’s pain. Trust me, a Veterinary Rehabilitation Therapist and an equine Lameness Vet make a mean team, one person’s skills complementing the other’s perfectly. Together, they will hone in on the problem, each one helping the other to be as efficient and effective as possible during the diagnostic work up.

This may seem overwhelming, and you may not be able to go through all of these steps to get a full diagnosis for your horse. But there is still hope.


Your Equine Vetrehabber

In working together with an equine rehabilitation therapist over a period of time to restore balance and tensegrity to your horse, you may be able to change your horse’s way of moving, reduce their pain, and allow the body to heal and come back to balance. For many musculoskeletal conditions causing low-grade lameness, this can be enough. Your Vetrehabber will be able to guide you on whether the shoeing needs attention, or whether you need a dentist, a saddle fit or changes to your tack.

Your Vetrehabber will also tell you when this course of action is unlikely to work. Each horse, each injury and each journey of recovery is different. We often need to work together, re-evaluate the course of the lameness, re-assess the recovery plan, and make adjustments to it as time progresses, as the horse progresses, and as we come to understand the complexity of each individual patient more clearly.

What I’d like you to take home from this message is not to ignore the signals your horse is giving you.

Look at your horse clearly and objectively. Take off the filters of what others have told you. You know your horse. What is he saying to you?

A message from Sue Dyson:

Be sure to check out her course on Equitopia so that you can better understand the behavioural signs of pain in your horse.


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