Recognising Pain In A Horse Whilst Riding

Recognising Pain In A Horse Whilst Riding

Pain in a horse can go unrecognised, with the signs sometimes being too subtle to notice. A recent study suggested that both owners and trainers are poor at lameness recognition, with 47% of horses who were presumed ‘not lame’, actually being lame or having other pain-related gait abnormalities. Here is how to spot the signs of pain in horses and how owners can prevent painful symptoms arising!

Signs of Pain

Signs of pain in a horse when riding can be recognised through the Ridden Horse Ethogram. Some symptoms may also be recognised in the stable too!

The Ridden Horse Ethogram is a research-backed tool displaying common gait, posture, and facial expression horses make when they are lame. Lameness can be a result of pain in the limbs, but also elsewhere on the body. Due to lameness being a broad marker of pain, it is important that rider’s are vigilant to the behaviours noted on this science-based ethogram.

Lame horses scored 14 points out of a possible 24 points on the Ridden Horse Ethogram. Therefore, a horse exhibiting just a few of these signs may not be in pain. These symptoms were noticed significantly more in lame horses than those who were in sound horses.



The Ridden Horse Ethogram suggests that abnormalities in gait could indicate musculoskeletal pain. Signs to look out for include;

  • Crookedness in the stride.
  • Stumbling or tripping repeatedly
  • Spontaneously changes in gait
  • Changes of leg in canter
  • Unwillingness to go forward.
  • Rushed gait,
  • Gait too slow
  • Sudden change in direction
  • Rearing
  • Bucking or kicking

Other Movements

Other ridden movements that rider’s should be aware of when in the saddle are;

  • Opening and shutting the mouth from up to 5 seconds.
  • Head tossing.
  • Head tilting.
  • Head in front of the vertical.
  • Head behind the vertical.
  • Bit pulled though the mouth.

Noticing whether the horse's tailed is clamped down or to one side is also an indicator of ridden pain. In addition, large swishing movement if the tails were twice as frequent in lame horses than in non-lame horses.

Facial Expression

Facial expressions may also change in the ridden horse, when experiencing pain.

  • Ears rotated backwards or flat.
  • Whites of the eyes exposed.
  • Eyes closed/ half-closed for 2-5 seconds.
  • Intense stare for 5 seconds.
  • Mouthing opening and shutting repeatedly for more than 10 seconds.
  • Tongue exposed.

Some researchers suggest a change in facial expression is due to presence of the bridle or bit. However, during the development of this pain-recognition tool, bridles could not be related to the frequency of pain symptoms.

Failing to recognise these signs of pain could result in punishment-based learning and further reinforce undesirable behaviour. However, there are some things owners can do to prevent occurrence of musculoskeletal pain all-together!

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Preventing Musculoskeletal Pain in Horses

To prevent the occurrence of musculoskeletal pain in horses, owners can take simple steps to relieve muscle tension and protect against damage caused by everyday riding.


Carrot Stretches

Carrot stretches are gentle stretching manoeuvres which encourage extension of muscle and soft tissue. Supporting extension of tissue helps to relieve shortened muscles which are full tension and often build-up during ridden work. Tense muscles can be painful and restricting, therefore encouraging this prolonged period of stretching can help with freedom of movement during subsequent work. Facilitating longer, softer strides, this also helps to reduce concussive forces of the stride, with high forces up the limb also causing damage and pain.

Performed in a controlled manner and speed, carrot stretches are also great to strengthen muscles and stabilise joints in the horse’s back. Strong muscles help to support joints through range of motion. Although, some movement is required in joints, excessive joint movement can result in pain and damage to the structures.


Good Nutrition

Healthy joints are key to preventing the occurrence of injury, and therefore pain! Healthy joints help to maintain joint integrity, therefore high forces exerted throughout the horses working life can be withstood for longer.

To support joint health, a nutrient-rich diet is essential! Inclusion of key nutritional building block to maintain joint health can be easily found in reputable horse joint supplements.

Key nutrients such as Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulphate work to enhance recovery and repair after exercise. Meanwhile, micronutrients such as Methylsulfonylmethane and vitamin C act as key anti-inflammatories to fight and protect against damage and pain. 


Low impact exercise is one of the most beneficial steps horse owners can take to protect against musculoskeletal pain. Therefore, turnout could be a key element in a horse’s lifestyle. Quick, easy, and affordable, it not only protects against pain, but can be beneficial for performance and mental wellbeing of horses too!

Turnout ensures horses have freedom of movement throughout the day. Movement is vital after exercise to assist with removal of exercise’s waste products, which can cause damage and pain in muscles. In addition, this gentle form of exercise helps to ensure vital nutrient flow to muscles and joints, enhancing recovery and repair.