Don’t Miss Subtle Signs of Pain in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 16, 2012

Signs of acute pain in horses—colic, obvious lameness—are familiar to most horse owners. However, your horse may be in mild discomfort, or even moderate pain, and show only subtle signs. Especially if your mount is well-trained and used to doing what you are asking him to do, you might not be aware of his aching back or stiff legs. As prey animals, horses are programmed not to show signs of pain. So how does an owner detect discomfort in her horse?

A change in behavior should tell you that something isn’t right. If a horse suddenly becomes hard to catch, fidgets while he’s being groomed or tacked up, begins to buck or bolt when ridden, or fiddles constantly with his bit, he may be showing that he’s anticipating or remembering that being ridden will cause pain. Reluctance to go up or down hills or to move energetically on the flat may be signs of discomfort in the back or hindquarters. Likewise, a horse that suddenly is less eager to eat may have gastric ulcers or problems with teeth.

Postural changes can be clues also. Horses that stand with one forefoot “pointed” ahead of the other or with their weight rocked back off the forefeet are possibly signaling that their feet are sore. Those that stand with all four feet bunched up under them (described as the “goat on a rock” posture) may have hock, stifle, or back pain. Horses that stretch as if to urinate while they’re being ridden may be telling you that their back is sore or, more likely, that their muscles are on the verge of cramping due to a metabolic condition.

A horse that is grinding his teeth, staring at his belly, or just acting unusually quiet or dull can be signaling some sort of discomfort. Patchy sweating, especially when the horse is not being worked, is also a sign of pain.

All horses have moments when they act odd or different from their regular pattern, and these isolated episodes don’t always have a serious cause. However, owners should be alert to small or subtle signs that a horse may be uncomfortable, and should ask a veterinarian to examine the horse. Don’t ignore early signs of pain, and don’t assume the horse is pain-free even if an initial veterinary exam doesn’t immediately turn up a definite answer. Some horses are good at concealing pain, so continue to monitor behavior and ask for a recheck if necessary.