How Can I Tell if My Horse is in Pain?

Table of Contents

How Can I Tell if My Horse is in Pain?

Table of Contents

Just like you would learn to interpret signals within the human body as a reason for closer inspection,  so too subtle signs exhibited by your horse can provide you with crucial information about their health. 

We’ve put this article together for horse lovers who want to be proactive about their horse’s well-being. Early recognition of warning signs is crucial for diagnosing equine medical conditions, and in this article, we provide 11 signs that your horse is dealing with pain.

Of course, prevention is always the alternative to finding a cure. So we’ll discuss how you can prevent horse injuries later in the article, but let’s begin with the basics.  

The Basics of Equine Behavior Regarding Survival

What makes pain management especially difficult in horses is their ability to mask their pain. As prey animals, horses have adapted to the threat of predators by hiding any discomfort that would indicate to a mountain lion, wolf, or coyote that they are weak and injured. 

A horse’s response to danger is almost always to run from it.  This means that horses are constantly scanning their environment for anything that might pose a threat. One could say that a horse’s nervous system has a propensity towards hyper-vigilance. 

Horses appear edgy and nervous unless they are completely satisfied that they are safe.  Part of this adaptive mechanism is that they stand when sleeping and also that they hide pain so that they can escape when threatened.  

Most horse owners have heard of the concept of a ‘horse whisperer.’   This is a trainer or owner who is very perceptive and has mastered the art of non-verbal communication.  

This is indeed an art and a science; not everyone is a horse whisperer.  But every horse owner can play a huge role in the health and well-being of your horse by taking note of the signs we will discuss below: 

11 Tell-tale signs that signal your horse is in pain

1. Abnormal Gait

Gait change is a common occurrence with horses. If you’ve worked with or owned horses then you’ve dealt with this at least once. 

A horse’s gait can change in response to pain, particularly in their limb. It can also be due to a restriction on their movement.  As previously mentioned, horse owners should consider these signs along with the environmental factors that could be affecting the horse. 

Visible signs of abnormal gait are uneven walking and soreness when they start trotting.  Other signs will be staying in the same place for extended periods.  Eating grass only within their immediate reach is another sign of problems and you should watch this behavior if it continues for more than a day. 

The causes of abnormal gait and even lameness can be complex but usually involve deficits such as stringhalt, mild intermittent upward fixation of the patella, and shivers.

2. Change in the Way the Horse Stands

Typically, horses stand for 22 to 23 hours a day – socializing and eating. [1]  They are also known to sleep while standing, as explained previously. These are animals that like to be on their feet. 

You’ll know what normal behavior is for your horse concerning its standing habits.  Any change in these habits will signal a horse in pain.  Below are some important clues you can gather to tell what your horse might be experiencing. 

  • Do they still stand in the same manner when you tack them up? 
  • Do they still place the same foot on the front when grazing? 
  • Do they stand square when you halt? 
  • Are they shifting their body weight from one leg to another?

3. Biting or Kicking the Belly (Sign of Abdominal Pain)

A horse suffering from gastrointestinal or abdominal pain may bite or kick its stomach. In the worst-case scenario, this could indicate a chemical emergency, so it’s best not to ignore this behavior. 

Equine colic, which means abdominal pain in horses, covers several types of gastrointestinal distress. This variety of conditions is the most common reason a horse needs veterinary care. It is also the leading cause of death in adult horses. [2]

Some common causes of colic include:

  • An abrupt change in feed
  • Tainted or moldy feed
  • Sand ingestion
  • Stress
  • Long-term use of NSAIDs
  • High-grain-based or low-forage diets
  • Lack of water consumption
  • Parasite infestation, and
  • Dental problem

Call your veterinarian if you witness your horse consistently biting or kicking its stomach. You should aim to keep your horse active while you wait for the vet, as inactivity may worsen this problem. 

4. Sore Eyes

The eyes are quite sensitive on a horse. When they have something in their eyes, they may hold one eye half closed (squinting).  There could also be excessive discharge from one or both eyes. 

A phenomenon called ‘worried eyes’ is another sign of pain in horses. The muscles around the horse’s eyes, particularly the upper eyelid, will spasm when they’re in pain, causing a ‘worried’ expression. 

5. Abnormal Sweating

If you observe an abnormal amount of sweat, you may well be seeing an increased pain response. You will know how much your horse sweats during hot weather and whether they are prone to overheating, but this will be different.   

PInch a fold of the horse’s skin around their shoulder or neck muscles and watch whether it pulls back.  If the skin does not return to its original position quickly, this could indicate dehydration from sweating.  

Combined with some of the other signs listed here, it’s a sure sign that your horse needs urgent attention. 

6. Decreased Appetite

Trying to give your horse a treat and they seem uninterested? Noticing them eating less than usual?

If you’ve ever had a toothache or something wrong with your gums or your jaw, then you know it’s nearly impossible to get excited about eating, and your horse feels the same.  

Over time, sharp hooks or points can form on the outer part of the horse’s mouth and cause pain when chewing. 

Excessive drooling and tooth grinding, known as bruxism, are other signs of pain in the mouth. These signs often accompany stress-related behaviors, like weaving (side-to-side movement of head and neck) or crib-biting. 

7. Weight Loss

Weight loss by itself doesn’t indicate your horse is in pain; however, weight loss may appear alongside other ailments that signal your horse has a new condition that could be causing a great deal of pain or discomfort. 

8. Coat Colour Changes

Sudden changes in coat colour, like white spots or washed-out appearance, can be a sign of soreness in your horse.  This is caused by changes in blood flow due to restrictions in the fascia and pressure on the blood vessels. 

9. Uneven Shoulders

Uneven shoulders are a red flag for strain. Your horse could be over-exerting one side of their body. You will start to notice that you are riding longer in one stirrup than the other despite them being the same length.   

10. Temperament or Mood Changes 

Sudden changes in mood or temperament signal a problem if nothing has changed in your horse’s daily routine.  You will notice that they are more nervous than usual, even when a familiar rider approaches them.  They may bulk or exhibit runaway behavior because they want to avoid touch or exercise. 

All these behaviors are sure signs that the horse is experiencing a significant level of pain that it cannot manage.

11. Discomfort at Speed

Trot (a ten-beat diagonal horse gait) and canter (a controlled three-beat gait a bit faster than the average trot) can cause acid to flow around your horse’s stomach. When that happens, it irritates any ulcer they may have.

Your vet may suggest a need for a gastroscopy. It is a procedure performed under sedation, wherein they will pass a 3-meter flexible fiber optic camera from one nostril to the stomach. Your veterinarian may devise another treatment plan to help your horse feel better.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Speak to any equine veterinarian and they will all have the same advice.  Do your best to prevent situations that will cause your horse pain on a day-to-day basis.  

You’ll remember that we said horses hide their pain, so by the time your horse displays the signs we have discussed above, you can be sure they are in a significant amount of pain.   

One of the primary causes of pain in these animals is the over-exertion of their muscles, joints, and tendons.  Older horses are especially prone to this condition. Horses are robust but just like humans, they need to recover themselves after physical activity.  

Your horse will benefit from using a product like CarnoGel, which is scientifically proven to accelerate muscle recovery and shorten downtime.  It contains the compound carnosine which occurs naturally in the horse’s muscles and has an anti-inflammatory effect.   

Since it is an all-natural compound, you can rest assured that it will not affect your horse’s ability to compete in the sporting arena.  This gel plays the role of preventative therapy and will greatly assist your horse in recovery from physical exertion. 

Use it before and after physical exercise and it will greatly reduce your need to worry about your horse developing painful conditions associated with muscle, tendon or joint pain. 

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Below is a testimony from one of our clients that clearly shows the role CARNOGEL played in muscle recovery.

“After recovering from an injury, it was more challenging to build up the physics of a horse since the muscles were weak and not used to the training. We started step by step, but with the help of CarnoGel, my horse was willing to do more and got back in shape faster than expected. After being back on track, I didn’t give up on the gel since it helps me to maintain my horse’s healthy ligaments, muscles, and joints and recover faster after our training and competitions.” – Elizabeth P. Showjumper

This deals with muscle, joint and tendon issues, but similarly, ensure that you regularly check your horse’s mouth for signs of trouble and deal promptly with any indications that they’ve lost their appetite.  A few small weekly checks will be the best way to catch problems early on and keep your horse happy and healthy. 

Concluding Thoughts

We stand with the idea that prevention is better than cure, but sometimes injuries, infections, and disease are inevitable.  Despite your best attempts at managing the health of your horse, you’re going to face a situation where they will need your help. 

In this article, we’ve discussed the most common signs of changes in a horse’s behavior.  This has ranged from watching how your horse moves to more subtle signs like changes in body language and their response to you as their owner and/or rider. 

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‘Keeping horses healthy together’

References:

[1] https://journals.biologists.com/

[2] https://ceh.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/