“You Can’t Train with Pain”

As obvious a statement as the title may be, it is a sad reality that many horses are trained while in pain than is realised.

This article will examine the behaviours and characteristics of horses in pain, so that we may recognise these symptoms and be in a position to make better decisions as trainers and riders.

There are behaviours of pain, that can also be linked to a variety of responses such as excitement and fear.

Understanding Behaviour

Behaviour, response and expression is complicated and often misjudged between us and other species. It’s a well known fact that people use more non verbal communication than talking, however when it comes to horses, there is comparatively little research in to horse expressions and mixed knowledge on herd behaviour.

I often see photos and videos (from my own past work too I might add) misguidedly stating that the horse is relaxed or enjoying an activity. When in fact the horse looks on the brink of bolting or mentally shut down (equally dangerous). These horses are then deemed ‘bombproof’ and listed for sale to children and inexperienced riders.

So, how can we tell what’s really going on? I’ve separated some behaviours based on both research I have read and my personal experience.

The following can be linked to both pain and positive feelings such as excitement:

  • Bucking
  • Rearing
  • Rushing
  • Ears forward + biting (nipping) such as at feed times
  • Head Swinging
  • Prancing 

Behaviours linked towards negative feelings pain/discomfort/fear/anxiety(physical and mental):

  • Bolting
  • Napping (refusing to go forwards)
  • Limping
  • Head Shaking
  • Head Bobbing
  • Sterotypies
  • Stamping
  • Putting ears back
  • Kicking
  • Ears back + biting – such as tightening the girth
  • High neck / head carriage (unusually high and tense)
  • High tail carriage
  • Round eyes (showing whites)
  • Round nostrils (accompanied by loud snorts)
  • Licking & Chewing

Pain Face

Notice the horse above. What do you see?

Examine the face; the ears flat back, the nostril tense and narrow, opening of the the mouth showing teeth, next we see the tail which is high in carriage. While individually they could mean different things, together they create a picture of tension and possible pain.

Credit: Karina Beck Gleerup and Cristina Wilkins

Download a FREE copy of The Equine Pain Face

However, looking at a photograph isn’t enough of a test for pain and most of the time, behaviour happens without a camera present.

Trigger Stacking – Excitement, Pain or Anxiety?

If you haven’t herd of trigger stacking before, think of it as a staircase, you often believe that you and your horse begin at the bottom step on your visit. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

We often arrive at the yard at different levels every day, affected by our own sleep, our interactions – Did the kids get up for school? Did someone cut you off on the way to the yard? You get out of the car but you can still be stressed out or maybe it’s been a smooth day and you are calm and relaxed. Next time you approach the stable, think about which one describes you and take a breath.

You arrive to the yard and your horse may have been stabled overnight, perhaps the horse in the next stable has left, maybe the hay ran out 3hrs ago and they are hungry, maybe they had a great sleep in the field with their buddies. Take a few minutes to check in with your horse too – that greeting moment is important for both of you and may set the tone for the day.

Throughout your time with your horse, stresses may occur, either from discomfort/pain, training, your response, your horse’s response. It can lead to the best day or the worst day. Taking time to think about how your interactions will benefit the horse’s learning. If you ever feel yourself getting fed up, it’s time to call it a day or spend some time out to calm down.

What Was the Trigger?

Many people may believe that the plastic bag was the trigger in our diagram.

A popular method to ‘solve’ this is to tie a bag to a stick and rub the bag on the horse – causing flooding (seen below). I do not endorse this method of training. We can use kinder training methods to introduce the bag (please see my other blog post on kind desensitization) , however we could also assume that the object (bag) isn’t the trigger.

We can look to alternative scenarios for what we can control in this case to reduce the stress:

  1. Management could provide an all weather turnout allowing the horse more adequate time out.
  2. The rider could notice the horse put their ears back when tacked up- and checked that saddle had fit correctly.

The ‘trigger’ isn’t always the most obvious problem, which is why carrying out a checklist will be useful and working on ourselves to improve knowledge and awareness is essential.

Horses May NOT Express Pain 

Horses are designed by evolution not to show you the more obvious signs of pain such as limping- this could after all get them eaten in the wild. But when anxiety or stress is added to pain, it can often result in being mistaken for excitement or fear.

It’s important to know for example, that a horse could ride a full XC in severe pain showing only mild symptoms, but when something additional adds stress to the mix and you reach the top of the staircase, this is where the more dangerous behaviours can occur. I say this not to frighten you, but to be mindful of your horse and check in with them before and after each ride.

Checklist

Using a checklist  is beneficial not only to you but also to a vet or equine professional, as it helps to create a picture of the situation.

If you feel unsafe performing any of these tasks, don’t – seek help!

  • Greeting – How does your horse greet you? Do they turn their backs for example.
  • Grooming – Is your horse sensitive in any particular area?
  • Back check – Running your fingers over the muscle running along each side of the spine, applying steady but not too strong pressure. Does your horse dip, or flinch?
  • Saddling and girthing up – Does your horse move away from their saddle or put their ears back/bite while the girth is fastened?
  • Riding  – Observing feeling or behaviour while being ridden.
  • After work – Check sweat patches for even distribution of the saddle weight
  • Second groom – Give your horse another groom, they may be more sensitive after being ridden.
  • General behaviour – If on a yard, ask the staff to make notes of any behaviours, these can help build up a bigger picture.

Assessment

If you are concerned about your horses’s behaviour, the bottom line is you should consult with a professional. There are lots of different types of professionals out there, but when it comes to behaviour an Equine Psychologist or Behaviourist can help you diagnose the triggers for the behaviour and if needed, give advice on where to go next.

However, before you contact a specialist, it’s important to speak to your vet, they can help you rule our any obvious pain symptoms. Where a vet can find no obvious pain issues, it’s time to contact a behaviour specialist. Sometimes it isn’t a pain issues, but 90% of the work I have been involved with has had some – mild, moderate and severe – underlying pain issue. Once we remove the discomfort and put a plan together to support the horse, the situation lifted and positive work was resumed.

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