Recognising facial pain in horses

By Sue Palmer

The brilliant Sue Dyson (of the Animal Health Trust and Equitopia ( have done it again!  The third in their series of recognising pain or discomfort in horses.  The first was on recognising subtle lameness (, the second on diagnosing subtle lameness (, and this third is on recognising facial pain in horses (


H has had a history of poor care – some would call it abuse – in homes where he was treated more like a machine than a horse.  Eventually he found his forever home, where he is very much loved, and treated like royalty.  Before long though, his behaviour deteriorated, and after veterinary investigation, it was clear that this was because of long term pain. H was finally being listened to.  He was operated on, and is now back in ridden work, apparently willing, and certainly no longer demonstrating the severe pain behaviours that showed a year ago.


Yet if you watch his face in his ridden work, it’s clear to me that pain is still present, and this video ( just confirms that even more clearly.  The vets have given him the all clear in relation to his operation, he has his saddle / teeth / back checked, he is doing everything his owner is asking of him, and yet I believe he is still communicating significant discomfort.  This video ( suggests that when the pain is removed, for example with nerve blocks, the facial expression changes almost instantly.  It is my experience that in the large majority of cases, once the pain is removed, the pain behaviours go away.


It’s not always an easy road to follow, and I don’t believe that it’s possible to find the root cause of pain or discomfort in every single horse (it’s not possible in people, so why would we think it might be possible in horses?!).  But we have a duty to do our best for our horse, and to investigate as many avenues as possible, if our horse is clearly communicating pain or discomfort.


Horses can only communicate pain or discomfort through their behaviour or performance, and as owners we can learn to recognise that pain, and to find the right help for our horse. I wrote ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’ ( to help people recognise when pain or discomfort might be the root cause of a behavioural or performance problem.  These videos support the same theory, and are beautifully filmed, edited and produced, making them easy to watch and popular to share.  Please spread them far and wide, for the good of the horse.

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