How to tell if your horse is in pain

by Ditte Young

Updated on October 24, 2023
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes 

As flight animals, horses hide pain well. While this can be an effective defense against predators, it can make it difficult for us to know when our horses are in pain.

I often come across horses who have been misdiagnosed or labeled as lazy, stubborn, pushy, dangerous, and many other things. If there is one thing my work with horses has taught me, however, it is this: While some horses do have behavioral problems, horses don’t want to make your life hard. And often, we mislabel horses simply because we cannot tell that they are in pain.

As horse lovers, it’s our responsibility to learn how to recognize when our horses are in pain so we can intervene as quickly as possible. To help you do this, this article will cover some common signs that will tell you if your horse is in pain and what you can do to get to know your horse and its signals better.

Table of Contents

9 signs of pain in horses and how to recognize them

Some signs of pain in horses are more easily identified than others. For instance, most of us would be worried if we noticed that our horses were losing appetite, lying down too often, or suddenly losing weight.

Other signs can be more difficult to recognize. And by the time the horse exhibits more obvious signs of pain, such as abnormal gate or lameness, the physical damage may already be done. For that reason, it’s important to learn how to recognize the more subtle signs of pain in horses to be able to intervene as early as possible.

Below, you’ll find a list of 9 signs of pain in horses and how to recognize them:

1. Behavioral changes

If nothing much has changed in your horse’s everyday life, but your horse’s behavior suddenly changes, this could indicate that your horse is in pain.

Examples of sudden behavioral changes could be:

Further, some horses who exhibit spooky or oversensitive behavior are actually neurologically challenged. If the horse’s brain gets too much information from its body — e.g., due to pain — the brain gets overloaded with information. Combined with the information the horse is receiving from the outside world, this can cause the horse to get spooky because it struggles to process all the information it receives at once.

You might also be interested in: “How to stop a horse from biting”.

2. Worried eyes

When a horse is in pain, the muscles around the horse’s eyes are often tense. This is particularly visible in the upper eyelid, which causes the horse to have a worried look.

A horse can also have worried eyes if it is worried or unhappy about something in their environment. In this case, however, the eyes should relax once the horse settles down. If the horse is in pain, the eyelids will typically remain tense.

3. High head carriage

Horses who are in pain tend to change their head and neck posture, holding their head higher than usual. This can affect your horse’s vision and make them more spooky.

High head carriage can also cause tightness and tension throughout the neck muscles. It also puts pressure on the poll and the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). A tight TMJ changes the way the horse chews, which, in turn, can lead to dental problems.

A tight TMJ — as well as other mouth problems — can also cause tightness in the jaw. If your horse has a tight TMJ, you may notice an increase in the following behaviors:

4. Uneven shoulders

Uneven shoulders are caused by the horse getting off one leg and overloading the other. The reason for this is typically that the horse is experiencing pain in the front limbs or feet — e.g., from low heel/high heel heel syndrome, or because the horse compensates for how it carries its own and the rider’s weight.

If your saddle keeps slipping to one side or it feels like you are riding longer in one stirrup than the other even though they’re the same length, you should take a look at your horse’s shoulders. I also recommend looking at your own posture or how locked your body is when riding.

5. Ewe neck

Ewe neck — sometimes called u-neck — is a change in the horse’s neck muscles that causes tension and an under-developed top line in the horse’s neck. The condition can be caused by pain or incorrect training. It is often derived from the horse’s front end, meaning that the neck, shoulders, front legs, and front feet can all cause this change in the horse’s neck muscles.

Many horses develop ewe neck in combination with their riders complaining that the horse is “refusing to stretch out” or accept contact with the bit. If your horse has developed ewe neck despite good feeding and exercise, it could indicate that your horse is in pain and overusing their muscles to brace against it.

6. Pelvis angle

A horse in pain might change the angle of the pelvis — either making it steeper or flatter — to compensate or brace against the pain. You might think the pain would be coming from the horse’s hind end, but more often than not, it stems from a problem in the horse’s front.

The change in pelvis angle causes reduced mobility in the pelvis, affecting the way the horse moves. This, in turn, can cause sacroiliac joint problems.

One way to spot a change in pelvis angle is to check if your horse’s tail is tucked. If you can’t easily lift the horse’s tail, this could indicate a change in pelvis angle. You should also be on the lookout for an uneven pelvis. If you look at your horse from behind and its rump appears uneven when standing square, it could indicate that your horse is sore.

7. Feet and hooves

Most horses are on their feet almost 24 hours a day. If the horse’s feet are sore, the horse will have to compensate for this, which can affect their stance and gait.

Keep an eye on your horse’s feet. If they are changing shape, showing signs of bruising, or you notice brittle hoof horn or wall separation, flares, or cracks, there may be a problem with your horse’s feet or hooves.

8. Stance

Knowing your horse’s normal stance is essential when it comes to noticing signs that your horse is in pain. Small changes in stance can indicate that your horse is sore.

Does your horse always stand the same way when you tack up? Does your horse always place the same foot in front when grazing? Can your horse never stand square when you halt? Watch for these signs to help you recognize if your horse is in pain.

9. Coat color

Has the appearance of your horse’s coat changed? This might indicate that your horse is in pain. Changes in your horse’s coat color can be caused by changes in blood flow due to pressure on blood vessels and restrictions in the fascia.

If you notice sudden changes in your horse’s coat color, such as a washed-out appearance or white spots, these signs could indicate that your horse is in pain.

Animal Telepathy Mastery

Learn to recognize your horse’s signs of pain with Ditte Young

The symptoms listed above are some of the physical signs of pain in horses to look out for. However, your horse might be trying to communicate that they are in pain through other means. If you can’t understand what they are trying to tell you, you won’t know how to help them.

As your horse’s partner, it is your responsibility to learn how to read your horse’s signals so you can give them the best life possible. An animal communicator can help you do just that.

An animal communicator, also known as a horse whisperer, can help you learn to understand what your horse is telling you. With help from an animal communicator, you can get to the root of your horse’s pain. Not only does this give you the tools you need to take good care of your horse and ease their pain — it also helps you get to know your horse better.

With my online course, “How to make durable horses,” you can learn exactly what you need to know to understand what your horse is telling you and identify if your horse is in pain. In this course, you will also learn how to stop a horse from bucking, how to stop a horse from biting, and so much more.

Want to learn behavior techniques applicable to horses from Europe’s most recognized horse communicator? Now is your chance.

You can now participate in Animal Telepathy Mastery from anywhere in the world.

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