6 subtle signs of pain in horses

When a horse is in pain, the signs may be obvious—rolling or pawing, for example. More subtle clues are easy to overlook, however. Be alert for the following 6 easy-to-miss signs of pain:

1. Teeth grinding. A horse may grind his teeth, a behavior also known as bruxism, if he is anxious, frustrated or in pain. The timing of when he grinds can tell you a lot about the cause. For instance, if you hear the characteristic grinding noise after he eats, he may have a gastric ulcer. Or if it’s noticeable only when he’s ridden, something associated with carrying a rider may be causing him discomfort. 

signs of pain in horses can be subtle
Sometimes the signs that a horse is in pain are subtle (Adobe Stock)

2. Unusual sweating. One of a horse’s physiological responses to pain is sweating. If you notice sweat on your horse’s coat at odd times—for example, despite cold weather or even though he hasn’t been exercising—investigate further.

3. Distracted expression. If your horse is normally social and perky but lately seems strangely disengaged, he may be uncomfortable in some way. Try shaking a bucket of grain or offering him a carrot to see if he snaps out of it and returns to normal.

4. Difficulty managing hills. The effort required to travel up and down inclines can worsen existing soreness in the neck, back and hindquarters. A horse in pain might have trouble, or even resist, tackling hills.

5. Staring at his belly. Unlike the more distinctive signs of colic—vigorous rolling and nipping at the belly—some horses may simply stare at their stomach when it hurts.

6. Unusual posture. If your horse seems to be constantly shifting his weight, “pointing” a hoof or standing in an unusual way, he might be attempting to protect a sore limb. The dramatic “rocked-back” stance of acute laminitis is easy to spot, but chronic or slow-onset laminitis can result in a more subtle posture shift that just looks different than normal. Don’t dismiss any “funny” stance as a quirk, particularly if it appears suddenly.

Of course, whenever you suspect your horse may be in pain, contact your veterinarian to share your concerns.

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