Can you recognise when your horse is in pain?

The last couple of years have seen a welcome increase in the research of equine body language, with some fascinating studies looking at the expression of pain in horses.  Pain is one of the most common causes of behavioural problems in equines. Recognising when a horse is suffering is vital for his health and quality of life. Of course, horses can’t tell us verbally if they are uncomfortable, but changes in behaviour and body language can indicate they are in pain.

The video above was part of study by Karina Bech Gleerup – a vet and equine science lecturer from the University of Copenhagen. Karina and her fellow researchers found there is an ‘equine pain face’ that can be recognised with clear changes visible in the appearance of the ears, eyes, nostrils and muzzle, as well as muscle tension across the face. 

You can read more about the study in my recent article looking at pain in horses for Horse magazine here. The link to the full study of the equine pain face is listed below.

A second study by a team of researchers from Italy, England and Germany has developed a pain scale based on the facial expressions of the horses studied, called the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS).

Horses were studied before and after surgery and both their their facial expressions and behaviour were assessed. The horses showed a number of clear differences in their expression and behaviour after surgery - including ears pulled stiffly backwards, orbital tightening, tension above the eye area, prominent strained chewing muscles, the mouth strained with a pronounced chin, strained nostrils and flattening of the profile. The results can be found in full in the study listed below.

The Horse Grimace Scale is a great step forward in recognising equine body language and could potentially lead to huge improvements in horse welfare. Researcher Dr Emanuela Dalla Costa believes the scale could be developed further to assess other emotional states, like anxiety or fear. As we seem to be seeing an increase in abusive training methods and shocking images from ridden competition, these studies couldn't come at a better time. Let's hope the equestrian and welfare organisations take note and start considering how to recognise and address such abusive practices in an objective and unbiased way. 

Left: the horse before surgery Right: 8 hours after surgery  Photo © Copyright The AWIN project

Left: the horse before surgery Right: 8 hours after surgery

Photo © Copyright The AWIN project


‘An Equine Pain Face’ by Karina B Gleerup, Björn Forkman, Casper Lindegaard and Pia Andersen is available here.

'Development of the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) as a Pain Assessment Tool in Horses Undergoing Routine Castration' by Emanuela Dalla Costa, Michela Minero, Dirk Lebelt, Diana Stucke, Elisabetta Canali, Matthew C. Leach is available here.  

You can find out what is in the current issue of Horse magazine here.

Many thanks to Karina Bech Gleerup and Emanuela Dalla Costa for their images and film.