Health Care

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Part 2: Recognising the Signs - Pain Management

In this edition, we aim to help you identify the signs that tell us your horse is in pain.

Once we can recognise normal horse behaviour and we know what normal vital signs are then we are well equipped to know if a horse is feeling painful.

The most obvious signs of pain include:

  • Rolling, kicking and looking at the belly. This can be highly indicative of abdominal pain, but may be due to pleuropneumonia or tying up.
  • Lameness or an abnormal gait. This can be as subtle as shifting weight between limbs or pointing a hoof while standing, to a more severe lameness where the horse is holding a leg off the ground.
  • Standing in an unusual posture can give clues as to where the source may originate. Pain from lameness such as laminitis is characterised by a seesaw stance. A horse with a sore abdomen or muscles from tying up may have a hunched back. Those struggling to breathe from a respiratory issue may stretch out and elongate their neck.
  • Changes in facial expression such as baring teeth, mouth open, ear-pinning, clenched jaw, flared nostrils are signs that a horse is not happy at all.
  • Behavioural changes such as lying down more than usual, showing signs of being agitated or restless, dullness, stretching frequently, grumpiness.
  • Patches of sweat on the body could mean that the horse has hurt that area, or it could mean they are stressed or have a high temperature.
  • A decreased appetite, dropping food, eating slowly or spending an increased time with their mouth in a water bucket often indicates mouth discomfort.
  • Bad reactions to being touched, groomed or saddled, “girthness”.
  • Muscle twitches and tremors.
  • Biting at people.
  • Grinding teeth or chewing stationary objects.
  • Drooling
  • Squinting or holding an eye closed, increased tear production or discharge from an eye.
  • Head pressing
  • Mood changes – unwillingness to follow or turn.

Learning to tell if a horse is uncomfortable is one of the most important skills you as a horse owner can adopt. Remember, you are your horse’s advocate – your horse relies on you to get the help they deserve.

Keen to learn more about pain management options in horses? Read on for information on How to Treat Pain in Horses.

About the author

Dr Leigh Davidson BVSc, BApplSc

Director at Your Vet Online

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