“If only they could talk” is something horse owners often say to each other. Because sometimes there is something wrong with your horse, but it is not immediately clear what exactly. Is he just not having his day? Or is there more to it? How easy it would be sometimes to just ask! Horses don’t talk, but they do give signals about how they are feeling. We humans just need to learn to understand those signals…
Researchers have been working for years to find out in various animal species which signals can be read from, for example, the behaviour, the eyes and the muscles in the face. They have found that horses in pain tighten certain facial muscles. You can tell from six areas on the horse’s head whether there is discomfort or pain. If your horse shows any of these signs, it might not be all that bad. But if he tightens the facial muscles in four or more places, then you really have to investigate further. In addition to his facial muscles, a horse can also display all kinds of behavior that can indicate pain. Agitation, flemish, a low-hanging head, grinding teeth, biting or kicking at the stomach, stamping and scraping are examples of this.
The tightening of the facial muscles because of pain is known as the ‘painface’ in horses. There are scorecards with which you can see if your horse is in no, a little or clearly pain. The areas on the horse’s head to look out for are: the ears, eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth.
Pain Indicator 1: Ears Back
The ears of a horse without pain are usually forward. Especially if you just got there. A horse in pain will have his ears slightly further apart and turned to the side, or even all the way back.
Pain indicator 2: Eyes half closed
If your horse has his eyes half closed, it may of course not be that awake, but usually there is something else going on. If the eye is not round and open, but oval and pinched, then this is a sign of pain.
Pain indicator 3: Tension above the eyes
A horse in pain tightens the muscles above the eyes. This creates a kind of roof over the eye and the bone structure there becomes more visible.
Pain indicator 4: Tense chewing muscles
When your horse tightens his chewing muscles, you will see lines on the sides of the head. You can find these muscles under the cheekbone, for the curve of the jaw. Tightly tense chewing muscles indicate pain.
Pain indicator 5: Tight mouth and chin
Your horse’s mouth may also show signs of pain. The mouth is then more angular in shape and somewhat compressed, with the upper lip tense and a more clearly visible chin.
Pain Indicator 6: Wide Nostrils
When your horse’s nostrils stick out to the side, making the nose appear wider from the center out, it’s also a sign of discomfort or pain. An additional indication may be increased breathing.
What do you do with pain?
If your horse is showing obvious pain signals in his face, check his temperature, heart rate and breathing. With that information you can then call your vet for consultation. If the signals are less clear, but you still think that there is discomfort in the horse, check your management. Does the horse have enough roughage, free movement, social contact? Is there stress? Is the horse lame? Tension and stress can be combated with the help of an herbal extract of, among others, chamomile, monk pepper and passion flower. Magnesium also helps to reduce tension and stress and is often insufficient in the hay. Horses that are trained regularly can get more muscle pain due to a magnesium deficiency and therefore experience discomfort. Finally, you can also use cannabinoids to get your horse in better balance. These plant substances have a mild analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect and bring your horse back mentally and physically in balance. The immune system also gets a boost, making your horse more resistant to outside influences such as seasonal changes.