Subtle signs of pain in horses


When a horse is in pain, the signs may be obvious— rolling or pawing, for example. More subtle clues are easy to overlook, however. Be alert for the following easy-to-miss signs of pain:

• Teeth grinding. A horse may grind his teeth, a behavior also known as bruxism, if he is anxious, frustrated or in pain. The timing of when he grinds can tell you a lot about the cause. For instance, if you hear the characteri­stic grinding noise after he eats, he may have a gastric ulcer. Or if it’s noticeable only when he’s ridden, something associated with carrying a rider may be causing him discomfort.

• Unusual sweating. One of a horse’s physiologi­cal responses to pain is sweating. If you notice sweat on your horse’s coat at odd times—for example, despite cold weather or even though he hasn’t been exercising—investigat­e further.

• Distracted expression. If your horse is normally social and perky but lately seems strangely disengaged, he may be uncomforta­ble in some way. Try shaking a bucket of grain or offering him a carrot to see if he snaps out of it and returns to normal.

• Difficulty managing hills. The effort required to travel up and down inclines can worsen existing soreness in the neck, back and hindquarte­rs. A horse in pain might have trouble, or even resist, tackling hills.

• Staring at his belly. Unlike the more distinctiv­e signs of colic—vigorous rolling and nipping at the belly—some horses may simply stare at their stomach when it hurts.

• Unusual posture. If your horse seems to be constantly shifting his weight, “pointing” a hoof or standing in an unusual way, he might be attempting to protect a sore limb. The dramatic “rocked-back” stance of acute laminitis is easy to spot, but chronic or slow-onset laminitis can result in a more subtle posture shift that just looks different than normal. Don’t dismiss any “funny” stance as a quirk, particular­ly if it appears suddenly.

Of course, whenever you suspect your horse may be in pain, contact your veterinari­an to share your concerns.

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