Horse & Rider

Is Your Horse Hurting?


Learn how his behaviors under saddle can help you decide.

Your new horse swishes his tail, pins his ears, and swings his butt to the side every time you pick up the left lead. When you bought him, his previous owner told you, “Oh don’t worry about it, he’s always done that. It’s just normal for him,” but now you’re not so sure. Is it really normal?

Great question! In fact, it’s just this type of scenario that caused researcher­s to start asking what behaviors horses exhibit under saddle that might mean there’s something wrong. After all, would you really want to force your horse to perform a straight transition if he’s simply saying that he hurts? Most horse owners would say no. And you might be surprised to learn that studies indicate as many as 50% or more of horses that owners think are sound are actually lame.

How can that be? Lameness that is “subclinica­l” or mild enough that it’s difficult to recognize may go undiagnose­d, but still be a source of pain.

And bilateral (impacts both front of both hind legs) or multi-limb lameness can easily go unnoticed. Forcing a horse to perform when he’s hurting is an important welfare issue. We owe it to our horses to make sure they’re comfortabl­e in their work.

In an effort to protect our equine athletes, and perhaps put a stop to coercive or harsh training methods that can sometimes be employed to overcome “bad behavior” that might actually be due to pain, researcher­s in the U.K. have developed a tool called the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE).

In this article, I’m going to introduce the basics of the RHpE. I’ll tell you what it is, how it was developed, and how it can help you evaluate your own horse’s behavior.

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