Signs Your Horse May Be in Pain

Have you ever wished that your horse could talk to you and tell you exactly what he’s thinking? I know I sure have. But I’m also learning to read the subtle cues horses give us every day. If you really pay attention, you can see them, too. Horses will let you know when they’re happy. When they’re irritated. And also when they’re in pain.

Of course, some horses are more stoic than others. I know my gelding, Hershey, certainly is. I ran barrels on him for many years before he ever showed any signs of hurting. But when your barrel horse suddenly becomes arena sour and doesn’t want to go in the alley way, you know there’s a problem. Many people just choose to ignore it. They get a longer whip, bigger spurs, or change bits. Because of this all-too-common scenario at not just barrel races, but other equine performance events as well, I have a hard time watching anymore. (I no longer compete either.)

But aside from the obvious signs of not-wanting-to-perform, what are some other, more subtle signs horses show that let us know they’re in pain? I’d like to talk about a few.

 

Postural Changes

If you notice that your horse tends to stand in a strange position more and more, this could definitely be indicative of pain. For example:

  • Camped Under/ “Goat-on-a-Rock” Stance: Usually indicates pain in the stifle, hock, or back pain;
  • Rocked-back Stance: Usually indicates laminitis;
  • Toe-pointing: pain in one foot or limb;
  • Lowered Head: especially if the horse is continually holding his head lower than knee-level (this could be a sign of pain anywhere in the body); and
  • Continual shifting of weight: could indicate pain in one or more hooves/limbs.

 

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camped under stance

 

Facial Indicators

Your horse’s face can actually tell you a lot. Any of these signs may indicate pain:

  • lowered ears (out to the side and floppy looking);
  • tightening around the eyes (often showing wrinkles above eyes); and
  • tense facial/ jaw muscles.

 

horse-ears-out

lowered ears

 

Teeth Grinding

Horses may grind their teeth if they are uncomfortable during a certain activity (lunging, riding, etc.) or if this happens after eating, it could indicate ulcers.

 

Looking at Stomach

If your horse is continually turning to look at his stomach (usually in combination with other signs such as laying down, pawing, kicking at stomach, etc.), this is almost always an indicator of colic. It needs to be treated ASAP!

 

Flehmen Response 

Although horses do this for a variety of reasons (usually in response to odors), it could also be an indicator of pain, especially if a horse is developing colic or is experiencing low-level gastro-intestinal discomfort. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on a horse that doesn’t normally exhibit this behavior.

 

flehmen-response

 

Other Behavioral Changes

Your horse may also be experiencing pain of some kind if if he suddenly displays new behaviors such as:

  • aggressiveness;
  • irritability;
  • increased periods of lying down;
  • disinterest; or
  • pinning ears.

 

 

 

Sources and Further Reading

Subtle Signs of Pain in Horses

Pain in Horses Frequently Overlooked

The Equine Pain Face: Learn to Recognize the Signs

Pro Equine Grooms Q&A

Flehmen: The Horse with the Upturned Lip

Flehmen Response in Horses

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

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2 Responses

  1. Leigh says:

    Great article! My 20 yo mare recently exhibited the Flehmen Response after eating some feed a few days ago. She worried me to the point that I called the vet. Turns out she was choking on feed and had to have her esophagus scoped to relieve the feed. It scared the crud out of me, but thankfully I noticed her strange behavior quickly and was able to get the vet out right away!

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