Unless you’re Dr Doolittle there’ll be plenty of times you wish your horse could talk to tell you exactly what’s on their mind. Or more importantly, if they’re in pain. Unfortunately, in the real world we just can’t speak their language. So, a simple snort or neigh is often difficult to interpret with any certainty. But if you’ve spent enough time around equines then you’ll know there are subtle and not so subtle signs they’re unhappy or uncomfortable. If you’re still unsure, read our guide on how to tell if your horse is in pain. It’ll be well worth the effort.
Your horse doesn’t just rely on you to be able to read their body language to know if something’s wrong. They also need you to arrange the right horse insurance to suit their needs. Whether they’re a sprightly young foal or a slow but dependable veteran, there’s sure to be a policy just right for them. Contact the experienced team at Equesure today and get your horse protected now.
Do horses show pain?
As complex living creatures, horses clearly feel pain but showing it is another matter entirely. Developed over millions of years of evolution, horses have an amazing but infuriating ability to hide pain. Horses are prey animals and in the wild are instinctively programmed to shield any weakness from predators.
Unfortunately, this means pain is also well hidden from their carers. And if we can’t detect it then we can’t help resolve the cause of their suffering. So, telling whether your horse is in pain can be a big challenge for even experienced owners.
Alongside this is the fact horses are also known for their very individual temperaments. So, different horses will often display different signs of pain. For example, a spirited but temperamental thoroughbred might show signs of more intense pain than a calm, strong cob.
Age can also play a part. With older horses often showing less clear signs of abdominal pain caused by colic than younger ones. It’s heart-breaking when you consider that your trusty old mare has been in more pain than she appeared to be at first.
Closely watching your horse’s behaviour is the only way to make an early assessment of the sometimes very subtle signs something is wrong. Whether in the stable, in the field or out on a hack, it’s important to have a good mental picture of your horse and their behaviour.
What’s ‘normal’ for your horse?
Before getting into what signs to look out for, the most important thing to do is to have a clear idea what ‘normal’ behaviour looks like for your individual horse. After all, what is normal for one horse may be abnormal for another.
Just a few questions you might ask yourself include:
- When, where and how often do they lie down?
- How do they get along with other horses when turned out or on a hack?
- Do they come to the front of the stall to greet you?
- Do they guzzle up their feed right away? Is there something they will ‘always’ eat?
- How do they normally stand when resting?
- How do they react when being groomed, or saddled?
- Are they happy to have their feet picked?
- What are their normal facial expressions?
The answers to any of these questions and more could give you an early warning that something is amiss. Even if pain is not the cause of the change, it’s important to act quickly to nip any problem in the bud. By the time it’s obvious it might be too late to help!
Having ready access to a vet or farrier is a useful way to check out any issues before they get worse. Having the right horse insurance in the first place will give you the confidence to seek professional advice without the worry of a big bill.
Common warning signs of pain
Resistance to grooming or being saddled
A horse who’s reluctant when it comes to grooming or being saddled could be experiencing back pain. If a horse is in pain, they may even show signs of aggression such as pinning their ears or trying to bite when being touched or saddled. To see if this is the case then gently place single, interrupted pressure along their spine starting at the withers. They’ll probably let you know when it hurts but be on the lookout for muscle wincing and ear pinning.
Be aware it might not just be their back causing them issues. Resistance to saddling can be caused by any number of things including poor saddle fit or a sore mouth.
Reluctance to move
Just like humans, horses can suffer from arthritis that makes even just walking around painful. Instead of a graceful, easy walk, they may walk stiffly. They might also have difficulty standing up after lying down. While rest is important, letting your horse stay in their stall may not always be the best thing to do, and could even make matters worse. Instead, try to encourage slow, regular movement and speak to your vet about whether there are any supplements or medications that can help.
Particularly in older horses it’s important to know the signs of arthritis in horses and be aware of the different treatments available to you.
Loss of appetite
For many horses, feeding time is a highlight of their day. But if your horse seems to have lost their love for food and isn’t even interested in their favourite treats, then further investigation is needed. A likely answer could be they’re suffering from dental pain. You might also observe them dropping food, slow chewing, pocketing or pouching of food in the cheeks, and head tilting.
Your horse’s teeth will face a lot of punishment over their lifetime causing sharp edges and hooks to form on their molars. These can easily cut into their tongue and cheeks, causing pain when chewing. Always pay close attention to how your horse chews their hay and grain, a change could be an early sign a dental check-up is needed.
Another sign to watch out for is if they become reluctant to accept a bit. If your horse throws their head when asked to stop or slow down, it might not be because they’re being cheeky. It could be that they've got a toothache!
For more details read our guide to spotting problems with your horse’s teeth.
Kicking or biting at the belly
Rolling, sweating, flank watching, kicking or biting at the belly, pawing, stretching, and groaning are all indicators of gastrointestinal pain. But be warned, belly pain can quickly turn into a colic emergency. If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, remain calm and document your horse’s behaviour and vital signs so you can track any changes.
Here are some quick tips when dealing with colic:
- A change in diet or training routine may bring on a bout of colic.
- Don’t let your horse eat anything, and don’t give them any medicine, until you’ve spoken to your vet.
- Walking may ease the pain but don’t try to walk your horse if it’s throwing itself on the floor.
To find out more about this painful condition and others read our guide to horse emergencies.
Head-nodding, weight-shifting between limbs, abnormal weight distribution, pointing, hanging and rotating of the limbs and abnormal movement are all common signs a horse is lame. However, there can be more subtle signs such as a change in the vigour with which the horse moves, or how quickly they tire in a training session.
Lameness is perhaps the most obvious change showing something painful is going on with your horse. And it can often indicate a specific limb. When you first notice lameness in your horse, it’s a good idea to immediately place them in a stall or small enclosure to stop any further injury or damage.
Then work methodically to look for any noticeable swelling, bruising or lacerations. Take your time and work all the way down from the shoulder to the hoof of each leg. If they’ll let you, pick up the hoof to look for any abscesses, nails, rocks, or any other abnormalities.
The hoof capsule itself contains some incredibly complex and sensitive structures that are susceptible to serious injury. If you spot a nail in your horse’s hoof don’t panic, there’s plenty of advice online to follow.
Other common hoof problems to look out for include:
- Thrush – If you notice a black, foul-smelling discharge it could be evidence of a bacterial infection.
- Sheared heels – Look out for deep cracks in the central groove of the frog.
- Seedy toe – The hoof wall peeling away is a common sign of this infection.
- Cracks – Splits or cracks in the hoof could signify something more serious.
According to a Royal Veterinary College/BEVA National Equine Health Survey, lameness is the most frequently reported equine health problem, representing one third of all horse conditions. Despite its frequency, lameness is sometimes tricky to spot unless you know how to spot lameness in your horse.
Common causes of lameness include laminitis, tendon damage, bone fractures, back and neck problems, and degenerative joint disease, such as arthritis or bone spavin.
Changes to their vital signs
Knowing your horse’s normal temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR) rates is a great tool in keeping an eye on your horse’s well-being. It is essential that all horse owners are aware of and able to measure their horse's normal, healthy vital signs. For example, your horse’s pulse rate will often rise from the normal when they’re in pain. The respiratory rate can also increase and you may even notice excessive sweating.
One reason to check your horse’s TPR regularly is that it will alert you long before any outward signs will do. Laminitis, viruses, and colics can all be caught early using this relatively simple diagnostic tool.
To give you an idea of the normal ranges for a horse at rest, the animal charity Blue Cross gives the following useful guidelines:
- A temperature of around 38°C. Just as with human patients, slight variations often occur as a response to environmental conditions and the surrounding temperature.
- A heart or pulse rate of between 36 and 42 beats per minute. Each beat should be clear and regular in strength and frequency. Be on the lookout for an irregular heartbeat.
- A respiration rate of between eight to 12 breaths per minute. Each breath should be quiet and regular in terms of both depth and frequency.
Other changes to look out for
- Evidence of eye pain such as holding the eye closed, increased tear production, light sensitivity, or discharge from the eye.
- A change in facial expression such as a fixed stare with wide nostrils and clenched facial muscles.
- Lying down more than usual.
Remember, you know your horse best. If you suspect your horse is in pain, don’t delay, just call your veterinarian. A quick exam by a professional will soon pinpoint the problem. Then you can both discuss the best treatment plan to help your horse feel back to their best.
Get them protected with horse insurance through Equesure
Having the right horse insurance in place when you need it is vital if you want your equine to receive the appropriate treatment and medication for any painful condition.
Equesure’s team specialise in equine insurance and have over 60 years of combined equestrian knowledge to help create a bespoke plan tailored to you and your horse.
Our policies offer three options for cover when it comes to veterinary fees:
- Option 1 – £4,500 per incident with unlimited claims in the year.
- Option 2 – £7,500 per incident with up to £15,000 in the year.
- Option 3 – £5,000 per incident with £2,500 top up for life-saving surgery.
Additional discounts may also be available if you insure more than one horse.
Call our dedicated team today to discuss your options and get a quote for horse insurance.