Depending on your horse’s personality, it can be hard to tell whether your horse is in pain. Some horses mask pain very well, while others communicate their pain and frustration at the slightest provocation. Since they can’t talk, horses have to communicate through their bodies with the way they move and the way they react to commands. Some types of communication are subtle – such as gentle resistance or a brief pause before complying with a request – while others are more overt, such as disobedience, bucking, biting or limping.
Experienced horse owners are typically familiar with identifying signs of pain in their horses while on the ground, but it’s often a different story under saddle. That’s because one of the primary indicators of pain in a horse under saddle can be disobedience or reluctance, which is often mistaken for willfulness or a lack of training. If you have a well-trained horse that suddenly refuses to do a task he’s been performing well all his life, or if you have a young horse that is proving especially difficult to work with, it’s always a good idea to ask your veterinarian to conduct a physical exam to rule out pain or discomfort.
Identifying whether your horse is in pain means putting on your detective hat, but it’s always worth it if you can find a way to solve your horse’s problems and ensure his comfort and well-being. Here are some other red flags to look for if you suspect your horse may be in pain:
- Head-tossing, pulling, nose-flipping or a gaping mouth. Before you reach for a tie-down or a cavesson, stop and think. Your horse may be experiencing dental pain or sinus pain that is causing him to react badly to the bit. An adult horse should undergo a dental exam at least once a year to check for sharp points or hooks on his teeth and for missing teeth. A horse’s teeth erupt gradually throughout its lifetime and are worn down by the repetitive daily action of chewing and grinding forage. That means if a horse is missing a bottom tooth, the unopposed upper tooth will continue to grow downwards, causing pain every time the horse closes its mouth or chews. If you suspect dental pain or think your horse has lost a tooth, ask your veterinarian to perform a dental exam or contact a qualified equine dentist in your area.
- Pain during saddling, girthing or mounting. If your horse’s saddle doesn’t fit him properly, he’s going to be in pain. Most horses are smart enough to associate their pain with the saddle you’re about to put on their backs. If your horse pins her ears at the sight of the saddle, tosses her head or tries to nip or bite at you during saddling, these are clear indicators that there’s a problem with your horse’s saddle. These horses also typically fail to stand still during mounting. Once mounted, they’ll underperform, struggle to perform basic maneuvers or may even buck or rear. Head-tossing can also be a sign of neck or back pain. Find a qualified saddle fitter who’s familiar with your discipline to evaluate if your saddle fits you and your horse.
- Stumbling, toe-dragging or reluctance to perform. Every trainer has the story of the difficult young horse who wouldn’t perform, only to eventually discover the horse was in pain all along and they just couldn’t see the signs. If your horse consistently underperforms, resists easy maneuvers or frequently picks up the wrong lead, it’s a safe bet to assume something is bothering him. Stumbling and toe-dragging are also telltale signs, and it’s worth asking your farrier to evaluate your horse in motion and under saddle during his or her next visit.
- Spooking. A spooky horse may be dealing with obstructed vision or a loss of vision in one or both eyes. If you notice cloudiness, discharge or anything unusual about your horse’s eyes, enlist your veterinarian to do a thorough eye exam.
Next time your horse acts out, don’t just assume he’s being willful. Our horses are always trying to communicate with us any way that they can, and it’s crucial to listen to them and learn from them all the time for their sake as well as for yours. A horse in pain can act out in unpredictable and dangerous ways, which can put you and other people at risk for injury. If you suspect your horse is hurting, it’s your responsibility as his owner and caregiver to find the right professionals to help him, whether that’s a veterinarian, farrier, dentist or saddle fitter. Your horse will thank you!