Education will help us hear what our horses are trying to say *H&H Plus*

  • A study looking into the behaviours of a group of 60 ridden horses, considered sound by their owners, identified that 73% had low-grade lameness in one or more legs, using Dr Sue Dyson’s ridden horse pain ethogram. H&H finds out more about the research and its implications for the future...

    More education is needed to better understand how horse behaviour can reflect underlying pain, a study indicates.

    In the research, led by veterinary orthopaedic specialist Sue Dyson, 60 sports and riding school horses, considered sound by their owners, were assessed using a ridden horse pain ethogram (RHpE). The RHpE comprises 24 behaviours more likely to be seen in lame than sound horses; the presence of eight or more of these behaviours is likely to reflect pain.

    Of the 60, 73% were found to be suffering with low-grade lameness on one or more legs, 47% had gait abnormalities in canter, and 47% had ill-fitting saddles with potential to adversely influence performance. Lame horses had higher RHpE scores than non-lame horses. The study was an extension of previous work that had shown that specific facial expressions and other behaviours are a reliable indicator of musculoskeletal pain.

    Dr Dyson told H&H while she expected to find at least 50% of the horses to show lameness, a figure previously demonstrated by research, she was disappointed by the larger proportion – but added this work reinforced the value of the RHpE as a “signpost“ towards the presence of pain.

    “Clearly there is ignorance about the fact behaviour can reflect underlying pain,” she said. “Education is required so owners, riders and trainers recognise behaviour, such as ears back and tail swishing, can reflect musculoskeletal pain, and vets know how best to investigate such horses.

    “When an owner says, ‘My horse doesn’t like dressage,’ it may be because the horse is uncomfortable, and if the underlying problem was recognised and treated, the horse may be able to perform dressage quite well.”

    The study found a larger proportion of the riding school horses compared with the sports horses showed lameness or gait abnormalities in canter.

    “I think back to the riding school where I grew up and remember there being some grumpy or not very willing horses, and retrospectively they probably had some degree of musculoskeletal discomfort,” said Dr Dyson. “Horses are trying to communicate; we need to learn how to listen.”

    Lucy Grieve, chair of the British Equestrian Veterinary Association’s ethics and welfare committee told H&H the study shows science can be applied to give riders, trainers and vets a framework to more reliably identify horses who need help and enable early detection.

    “Horses are frequently presented to vets far too late after the injury started. Early detection not only means the horse should suffer for less time, but it can keep costs and recovery time down,” she said.

    “A horse with a mild, short-lived injury is much more likely to return to full health than one with an injury that has grumbled on unnoticed and potentially resulted in a domino effect, leading to the development of further secondary injuries.”

    Veterinary behaviour specialist Gemma Pearson told H&H this is an important study demonstrating the association between facial expressions and pain and lameness.

    “Many people fail to recognise subtle signs of pain or stress in horses and assume any unwanted behaviours are due to the horse being naughty,” she said.

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