Deciphering Pain-Related Behaviour in Horses

Sep 10, 2023 by Jamie Finch

An eye of a horse

Horses are magnificent and resilient creatures, known for their strength, grace, and ability to form profound connections with their human counterparts. 

However, beneath their stoic exteriors, horses often hide silent suffering that can significantly impact their well-being. 

As responsible horse owners and enthusiasts, you must decode the subtle language of equine behaviour to uncover the hidden signs of pain and discomfort.

Horses, by nature, are masters at concealing pain—a survival instinct developed over centuries in the wild. 

In the wild, displaying vulnerability could mean life or death. 

This trait carries over to domesticated horses, making it challenging to identify when they're experiencing pain or distress.

Understanding the behavioural cues that indicate pain is not just a matter of horse welfare; it's necessary for anyone involved in their care, from dedicated equestrians to equine professionals. 

This comprehensive guide will explore the art of recognising pain-related behaviour in horses. 

I'll delve into the common causes of equine discomfort, explore the nuanced signs that may be easily overlooked, and shed light on the crucial role that body language plays in this detective work.

The Silent Sufferers: Horses and Pain

In the intricate tapestry of nature, horses have evolved as silent sufferers, concealing their pain as a matter of survival. 

This silent suffering is a remarkable adaptation that allowed wild horses to evade predators while appearing strong and resilient to potential threats. 

In the face of pain, predators could exploit weakness, and vulnerability could lead to exclusion from the herd. 

Therefore, horses have developed an innate ability to mask their discomfort.

However, while advantageous in the wild, this survival strategy can pose significant challenges in the domesticated world. 

As horse enthusiasts and caretakers, you often face the paradoxical nature of horses—they are both incredibly stoic and intensely sensitive creatures.

This stoicism, while admirable, can make it difficult to discern when a horse is in pain or experiencing discomfort. 

They may continue to perform daily activities, such as grazing, moving, or even participating in ridden work, all while concealing their discomfort. It's not uncommon for horse owners to be caught off guard when a seemingly healthy and robust horse suddenly reveals signs of an underlying issue.

The reluctance to display pain is deeply ingrained in equine behaviour. Horses have an innate ability to endure discomfort without complaint, making it a challenge to recognise when they need your attention and care.

Common Causes of Pain in Horses

Horses can face many physical and physiological challenges that lead to discomfort, and recognising the specific cause is crucial for effective intervention.

  • Injuries: Horses, by nature, are active and inquisitive animals. This can sometimes lead to injuries such as cuts, bruises, sprains, or even more severe traumas like fractures. While some injuries are apparent, others may be less visible and require a keen eye.

  • Illnesses: Horses can fall ill like any other living being. Illnesses such as colic, respiratory infections, and internal organ issues can cause significant discomfort.

  • Dental Problems: Dental issues are a common source of pain in horses. Dental abnormalities, sharp points, or irregularities in the teeth can lead to pain while eating or difficulty maintaining proper weight.

  • Hoof Problems: Problems with the hooves, such as laminitis, abscesses, or navicular disease, can cause excruciating pain as horses bear their weight on their hooves. Lameness or changes in gait may be indicative of hoof issues.

  • Gastrointestinal Distress: Conditions like gastric ulcers, prevalent in horses, can lead to abdominal discomfort and changes in eating habits. Horses may become irritable or reluctant to eat when experiencing stomach pain.

  • Joint and Muscle Issues: Arthritis, muscle strains, or ligament injuries can result in pain and stiffness, affecting a horse's mobility and overall comfort.

Behavioural Signs of Pain

Horses, in their unique way, communicate their discomfort and distress through a series of behavioural cues. 

As caretakers and enthusiasts, it's essential to decipher this language to provide timely relief and ensure the horse's well-being.

  • Changes in Gait and Movement: One of the most obvious signs of pain in horses is a change in their gait or movement. A horse in pain may limp, favour one leg, or exhibit an irregular gait. Observe how your horse moves during exercise, pasture, or while being led or ridden.

  • Altered Posture and Stance: Pain can change a horse's posture and stance. They may stand with their weight shifted to alleviate discomfort in a particular limb or area. This altered posture can be subtle but significant.

  • Changes in Eating and Drinking Habits: Horses experiencing pain may have reduced appetite or exhibit changes in their eating and drinking habits. They might eat more slowly, avoid certain types of food, or drink less water than usual. Monitoring their feed intake is crucial for early detection.

  • Aggression or Irritability: Discomfort can make a horse more irritable or aggressive than usual. They may pin their ears back, swish their tail, or even threaten to bite or kick when approached or handled. Be cautious when interacting with a horse displaying these behaviours, as they may react out of pain.

  • Resistance to Grooming or Handling: Horses may become resistant or sensitive to grooming, tacking up, or other handling forms when in pain. They may react strongly to pressure or touch in specific areas, indicating discomfort.

  • Vocalisations: Some horses vocalise when they are in pain. This can include whinnying, groaning, or other vocal expressions of distress. Pay attention to unusual vocalisations, especially during activities that don't typically elicit such responses.

It's crucial to note that these behavioural signs can vary in intensity and may be more pronounced in some horses than others. 

Additionally, some horses may exhibit a combination of these behaviours, while others may display only one or two indicative signs.

Subtle Indicators

Horses are incredibly adept at concealing pain, making it crucial for caretakers to be attuned to nuanced cues.

  • Facial Expressions: Horses can communicate pain through subtle changes in their facial expressions. Look for signs like tension around the eyes, a furrowed brow, or tightness in the lips. While these expressions can be subtle, they may indicate discomfort.

  • Ear Positions: The position of a horse's ears can convey a lot about their emotional state. While pinned-back ears are an obvious sign of irritation or pain, also pay attention to small adjustments in ear position. Slight flattening or tension in the ears may suggest discomfort.

  • Tail Movements: The tail is another area to observe for subtle cues. A horse in pain may swish its tail more frequently or hold it differently than usual. These changes can be subtle but meaningful.

  • Weight Shifting: Horses often shift their weight to alleviate pain in a particular limb or area. This can be seen as a slight leaning or a preference for standing in a specific position. Regularly observe your horse's stance and weight distribution.

  • Muscle Tension: Palpate your horse's muscles regularly. Increased muscle tension, stiffness, or twitching in certain areas may indicate pain. Horses may tense up to protect sore areas from further discomfort.

  • Reduced Social Interaction: Horses are social animals, and a horse in pain may withdraw from the herd or become less engaged in social interactions. Isolation or a sudden change in social behaviour can be a subtle sign of distress.

The Role of Body Language

To truly understand a horse's state of well-being and recognise pain-related behaviour, one must become fluent in their body language. 

Horses are masters of non-verbal communication; their body language can reveal much information about their physical and emotional state.

  • Ear Position: The ears are highly expressive and can signal a horse's emotions and comfort level. While pinned-back ears are an obvious sign of displeasure or pain, other positions are worth noting. Ears pricked forward typically indicate alertness and curiosity. Slightly flattened ears may suggest discomfort or tension. Frequent changes in ear position could signify agitation or pain.

  • Tail Carriage: A horse's tail can convey a lot about their mood and physical comfort. A relaxed and hanging tail usually indicates contentment. However, changes in tail carriage, such as tail swishing, clamped against the body, or being held unusually high, can be signs of discomfort or irritation. Pay attention to these variations in tail movement.

  • Facial Expressions: The face is a highly expressive part of a horse's body, and subtle changes can speak volumes. Watch for tension around the eyes, nostril flare, or tightness in the lips. Wrinkles on the forehead or a furrowed brow can also indicate discomfort. A relaxed and soft expression typically signifies a comfortable and content horse.

  • Weight Shifting: Horses may shift their weight to alleviate pain in a specific limb or area. They might lean more heavily on one side or favour one leg over another. Irregular weight distribution, especially at rest or during movements like standing, walking, or trotting, can indicate discomfort.

  • Muscle Tension: Regularly palpate your horse's muscles for signs of tension or soreness. Increased muscle tension, spasms, or twitching in specific areas can indicate pain. Pay particular attention to areas commonly affected, such as the back, neck, and shoulders.

  • Eye Expressions: The eyes can provide insights into a horse's emotions and physical well-being. A relaxed, soft gaze usually accompanies contentment, while a hard, tense eye may signify discomfort or stress. Look for changes in the brightness and clarity of the eyes.

Understanding the intricate language of a horse's body takes time and practice. 

By observing your horse's movements, expressions, and posture, you can develop a deep understanding of their physical and emotional state. 

This heightened awareness will enable you to detect pain-related behaviour more effectively and respond with the care and attention your equine companion deserves.

Behavioural Changes Over Time

Like humans and other animals, horses are living beings that can change their behaviour over time, particularly when experiencing pain or discomfort. 

Caretakers and horse enthusiasts must be attuned to these gradual shifts in behaviour, as they can serve as valuable indicators of underlying health issues. 

These evolving behavioural changes offer insights into a horse's overall well-being. 

They can play a pivotal role in early detection and timely intervention.

Consider a situation where a horse initially exhibits subtle alterations in gait and movement. 

Such changes might be easy to overlook but often represent the first signs of discomfort. 

However, these subtle changes can become more pronounced and apparent if the underlying issue persists or worsens. 

Lameness or irregular movement patterns may emerge as the horse continues to experience discomfort.

Similarly, changes in a horse's posture and stance can evolve. 

What starts as minor adjustments may gradually become more pronounced if pain persists. 

Horses may develop noticeable favouritism for a particular limb or stance as they attempt to alleviate their discomfort. 

These adaptations in posture may take time to be obvious, making it crucial for caretakers to be attentive to subtle shifts in how their horse carries itself.

Moreover, alterations in eating and drinking habits can follow a similar trajectory. 

Initially, a horse experiencing pain may show mild changes, such as eating more slowly or displaying a decreased appetite. 

These early signs may be subtle, but over time, they can intensify if the underlying issue remains unaddressed. 

This progression can ultimately lead to significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies, underscoring the importance of closely monitoring changes in eating and drinking behaviour.

In addition to physical changes, a horse's emotional state can evolve in response to persistent discomfort. 

Aggression or irritability may escalate as the pain continues. 

What may have begun as occasional irritability can become more frequent and severe, potentially posing not only a challenge for handlers but also a safety risk to other animals and individuals working with the horse.

Furthermore, a horse's resistance to grooming or handling can intensify if the source of pain remains unresolved. 

Once mildly sensitive to touch, a horse may develop a strong aversion to grooming, tacking up, or handling. 

This resistance can make daily care routines increasingly challenging and stressful for the horse and its caretaker.

Lastly, changes in social behaviour can be observed as discomfort persists. 

Horses are inherently social animals, and alterations in their interactions with other horses or humans can provide insights into their emotional and physical state. 

Over time, a horse in pain may become increasingly isolated from the herd or exhibit more noticeable shifts in social behaviour. 

As the discomfort persists, they may withdraw from social interactions altogether, which can further contribute to a decline in their overall well-being.


In conclusion, recognising pain-related behaviour in horses is essential for their well-being. 

Horses often hide their discomfort, but you can provide timely care by understanding their subtle cues.

I've explored common sources of pain, from injuries to dental issues, and discussed behavioural signs like gait changes and altered posture. 

It is crucial to understand their body language, such as ear positions and tail movements.

These behaviours can evolve, so regular monitoring is essential for early detection. 

By becoming an attentive caretaker, you can work with professionals to address pain-related issues promptly, ensuring your horse's health and happiness.

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