Health Care

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Part 1: Managing Pain in Horses

In this edition, we will identify what the subtle signs of pain look like, how you can minimise pain and when you need to call the vet.

Pain in horses can be a challenge for us to recognise and it can be difficult to determine where the pain is coming from.

It is vitally important that you do learn to recognise the signs that your horse is not comfortable, not only from a welfare standpoint, but remembering that a pain-free horse will perform so much better.

First Things First

To be able to recognise pain and provide early intervention to ensure your horse is not suffering, we need to understand what normal is.

Studies have shown that many people are unable to recognise the signs of pain and subsequently accuse a horse as being ‘grumpy’, ‘cold-backed’, ‘having rider issues’ etc.

We need to use a variety of behavioural and diagnostic clues to help us understand what a response to pain may elicit, remembering that some horses are far more subtle in their outward expression.

The most basic behavioural examples of a happy, pain-free horse include:

  • Eating well, not dropping food, finishing the feed
  • Facial expression – ears positioned forward, eyes are open, welcoming and clear, the mouth is soft and closed
  • Alert and responsive to surroundings
  • Relaxed body posture with free movement
  • Able to get up and down from the ground freely
  • A supple coat with no sweaty patches

A more objective measure of whether your horse is normal is to measure their vital signs. Here are normal vital signs for an adult horse at rest. Any deviation from these indicates that something is wrong you will need to call your veterinarian for advice.

Rectal temperature 37.5-38.5ºC
Respiratory (breathing) rate 10-24 breaths per minute
Heart rate 38-44 beats per minute
Gums - are a light pink colour, moist to touch, and if pressed, the capillary refill time is between 1-2 seconds
Gut sounds - over the course of a minute you should hear intestinal sounds from all quadrants of the abdomen

Types Of Pain

Having an understanding of the type of pain that a horse has can help us to provide appropriate treatment. We can broadly categorise pain by body system and whether it is acute or chronic. The most common types of pain by body system include:

  1. Musculoskeletal pain (somatic pain) – this can be associated with
    • skin
    • bones
    • nerves
    • muscles
    • joints
    • connective tissues
  2. Visceral pain – this is pain associated with internal organs and is caused by inflammation, ischemia (restriction of blood supply), mesenteric stretching (the membranous fold that attaches an organ to the body wall) or dilation or spasm of hollow organs. This is associated with the:
    • Thorax
    • Abdomen
    • Pelvis

types of pain

Acute pain is pain that occurs suddenly and serves as a warning to stop. While chronic pain has often been present for longer than 3 months.

So that was a brief overview of Pain Management in Horses. For more detail in how to identify when your horse is in pain, treatment options and NSAIDs click on the following links:

About the author

Dr Leigh Davidson BVSc, BApplSc

Director at Your Vet Online

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