Naughtiness or pain?

Naughtiness or pain?

Problems with ridden horses are often attributed to the horse being purposefully difficult, naughty, stubborn, taking the mickey, ignoring the rider or always being that way. This means that pain as a cause of unwanted behaviour is commonly disregarded, often resulting in the problems getting worse and management of the problem being completely inappropriate. However there is evidence that almost 50% of sports horses in normal work may have lameness that is unrecognised by owners and trainers, which has led to some pioneering research. Earlier this year a new assessment method for equine performance was tested by leading veterinary researchers from the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket and tested with a panel of vets. Their work aimed to develop an equine ethogram to help determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. An ethogram is a catalogue of species specific behaviours which are objectively defined and this development in understanding behaviour is fantastic news for horses. Better recognition of behavioural changes and facial expressions will greatly assist earlier assessment of lameness and will hopefully reduce punishment based training and suffering of ridden horses.

Behavioural differences between lame and non-lame horses were very apparent. Beginning with 117 behavioural markers, 20 of these showed a strong correlation with the presence of lameness and overall, 24 behavioural markers were associated with musculoskeletal pain. The following behaviours occurred significantly more in lame horses compared to sound horses- head tossing, tilting the head, mouth opening, tongue out, ears back, unwillingness to move, hurrying, crookedness, changing gait spontaneously, resistance, changes in eye posture and expression (such as closing the eyes partially or completely), going above the bit, stumbling, toe dragging and having a poor quality canter. Lame horses demonstrated an average of 9 of the 24 behaviours, compared to an average of 2 of the 24 behaviours being shown by non-lame horses. The maximum occurrence score in lame horses was 14 out of the possible 24 markers. Lame horses who were given pain relief with local anaesthetic also showed a significantly lower score once the pain was removed.

The results therefore showed that behaviour and facial expressions can reliably be used to help assess pain in horses. The ethogram can also be used by a variety of people, not just vets but owners and trainers too, so they can successfully apply it to horses they see on a regular basis. This exciting work has the potential to drastically improve equine welfare and change perceptions about equine behaviour in relation to being ridden. The work is ongoing but more people can now learn that if unwanted behaviour is present or the horse is making ugly faces, it is more likely to be in pain, rather than being naughty. There is no such thing as a naughty horse, just a horse that is trying to communicate!

Happy New Year!


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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.