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The Influence of Pain on Equine Behaviour by Melanie Watson of Instinctive Horse Training

Monday, May 04, 2015  ‹ Back To Latest News List


Horses have many ways of showing us that they are in pain. These ways are, inevitably, behavioural and it is our responsibility to be aware of changes in behaviour and to think about what the horse is trying to say. In any situation in which the horse shows undesirable behaviour, the owner should first consider whether it could be pain-related. This article discusses some of the ways in which behaviour can indicate pain, and some of the other related factors that can impact behaviour.


Not all pain-related behavioural changes are explosive. There is unquestionably a wide range of behavioural changes to be seen in the way horses communicate, which should indicate to us that they feel pain or that they may be afraid of pain.

Examples of this include reluctance to cooperate in certain routine “asks” and movements. Tail swishing, kicking out, biting or having ears pinned back are usually commonly missed as communications and as such are labelled incorrectly as grumpy, nasty, waspy….you name it! We label what we see with statements such as “the horse is in a bad mood” or “being a bitch” yet labelling behaviours with anthropomorphic descriptions is not useful because they do not describe the actual behaviours being seen. A clear description of what the horse is actually doing – and not the human interpretation of it – must be the starting point for any assessment.

It is important to identify when this “bad behaviour” started. What was the trigger for any abnormal behaviour? The responsible owner will consider what was happening to the horse when the “undesirable behaviour” started.

Farriers can often give a good clue when they find that the normally content horse is struggling to have a foot lifted or cannot hold it up or allow the leg to be manipulated in the usual way although he cannot find anything wrong with any of the feet per se. If the farrier mentions that your horse was “a pain to shoe today” ask him for more details – could this indicate pain in shoulder, hock or pelvis?

Dental practitioners can see damage to the gums, the roof of the mouth, the tongue and ulceration to the sides of the mouth. Behaviours such as general non-acceptance of the bit, head tilting, mouth opening, turning issues, steering, grabbing at the bit and pulling down are all suggestive of problems in the mouth.  Horses will run from pain so stopping issues are often noted. With problems such as these an oral examination should first be performed by the Equine Dental Technician, who can then easily rectify dental imbalance, sharp edges and remove wolf teeth, any of which can most certainly cause huge problems.

Ill-fitting saddles are a huge cause of pain and very real damage to both soft tissue and bony spinal areas. Unbalanced riders or riders who cannot carry their own weight through their frame will cause a horse to compensate in the way it manages the weight it is carrying, often by placing unnatural twisting forces on its shoulder and pelvic joints. Put an ill-fitting saddle and a poor rider together, as is extremely common, and the problem speaks for itself.  Explaining the importance of making absolutely sure that the saddle is a beautiful fit, taking into account seasonal fluctuations in weight gain or loss, is essential when educating horse owners.


Pain will always create avoidance behaviours in your horse.  Obvious non-weight bearing on a particular foot, hobbling steps and rocking back to avoid bilateral pain in more than one foot are usually the easiest behaviours to note when pain is foot-associated.

The horse may start to resist being caught both in the field as well as in the stable. It may be fractious when tied up, moving away from your touch or being unhappy during grooming. It may bite or strike out, kicking out or backwards, or it may show reluctance to being tacked up in general, being reactive to having the girth up, becoming “cold backed” (when the girth tightens it bunches up its abdomen and/or lifts its back.) It may, or most probably will, resist being mounted in any case. Bunny hopping steps when first saddled up, flaring nostrils and haunted, wide eyes are all indicators that the horse is either already in pain or expects pain once the rider has mounted.

Behaviours which may develop during ridden work could range from the horse freezing momentarily or totally planting itself to the spot; or rearing, which could in turn lead to or follow spinning, running backwards or running sideways. Bucking and bracing may occur, singly or in combination with any of the above behaviours. It is unfortunately true to say that most of these extreme behaviours are avoidable, being completely man-made. This may seem an extreme statement, but consider that if the onset of tiny pain-related nuances in behaviour is missed and the horse is compelled to continue working by sheer force of our will, it will obviously react badly.


Through the daily care of the horse, one gets to know all its little quirks, likes and dislikes. There may be procedures it has never relaxed with and that you have recognised from day one of ownership. Horses become classically conditioned to stimuli and make clear and long-lasting associations with various activities. For example if a horse has been ear-twitched during clipping or an injection during its past, you can expect a strong resistance to having its ears handled or having its bridle put on. This may not be because of immediate pain but because the horse remembers pain from having its ear abused in another situation. The owner needs to try to distinguish between fear reactions arising from a classical association with past experience and behaviours that may indicate actual pain in the present moment. Knowing as much as possible about your horse’s history is very important, though full truth at point of sale is not often volunteered by the seller.


The animal brain experiences a number of different driving influences. These are systems that drive behaviour in different ways, and all are associated with basic survival. Appreciating the existence of these powerful internal mechanisms helps us to understand some motivations behind the horse’s behaviour that can be intrinsically linked with pain.

Three of the brain pathways or systems are fear, panic and rage. These are totally different systems and can all result in unwanted behaviour for the horse owner. In simple terms these are illustrated below:

The Fear System

This is the animal’s physical fear of losing its life, producing flight or freeze responses. Flight is what a horse would automatically choose to do in a fearful situation (bolting). Freeze is what happens to a rabbit or deer caught in car headlights. Horses usually freeze momentarily before flight action is taken.


The Panic System

This uses a different brain structure and is connected to social loss. Separation stress leads to vocalisation (whinnying or calling out).


The Rage System

This system produces attack or anger. It can be associated with the horse being restricted or forced. It has a correlation with male dominance and testosterone.

Fear and panic may end up sharing similar behaviours but these innate systems have different meanings. Rage occurs when you simply keep asking or forcing your horse to do something he really says he cannot perform and can be related to pain or confusion and frustration. All of these systems can produce “bad” behaviours that may be motivated by environment, handling or pain, or any combination of these factors.

So now we can see that avoidance behaviours in horses can be strongly linked, not only with actual pain but also remembered pain where we throw in the fear of or anticipation of pain just for good measure.



All behaviours have a function. Once behaviour has ever been reinforced, either positively or negatively, it will likely be repeated. Associations are then made. The horse will start to associate the rider or the equipment with the pain or fear, and Pavlovian classical conditioning will occur. If, by accident or intent, the horse rids itself of the cause of the pain or discomfort, for example by unseating the rider, it is successful: its behaviour has the function of removing the pain. If that behaviour is then also positively reinforced (for example whilst free of the rider it gets the opportunity to eat grass) then it will absolutely reoccur. If avoidance behaviours are punished (as is so often the case) then the horse’s resentment, rage and mistrust are given fuel, thereby irreversibly ruining the relationship.


Functional analysis as taught by Dr Susan Friedman identifies Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. What is the actual behaviour? (not a label such as “bad tempered”) What is the function of the behaviour for the horse? What is the antecedent arrangement prior to the behaviour? This could be something environment-driven as well as physical pain, or both. What is the consequence to the behaviour being performed? I use this technique all the time. There may be several different answers from running the ABC analysis from several different angles.

Avoidance behaviours may come from fear or a loss of confidence on the horse’s part. A desire not to leave an environment where it feels safe, usually its field with bonded herd members (in Friedman’s analysis this is an antecedent arrangement) will produce napping or avoidance to going in a direction away from the safe environment. In the directly opposite situation, if a horse feels the over-riding need to return to that safe place (because of feeling unsafe or vulnerable) that compulsion will produce rushing, mouth opening, jogging, pulling hard at the reins to gain freedom to run, or at worst direct bolting.

The owner/trainer or specialist needs to be careful to identify whether any of the above behaviours are simply pain-induced, and this is highly likely. Learned behaviour from experience, in other words historical classically conditioned responses, is also very common. I work closely with vets to perform pain assessments and work-ups on horses with huge behavioural issues.  During this assessment, palpation of the spine, muscle stretches and manipulations and careful analyses of gait freedom, levelness, motivation and willingness all give us an idea of what is happening and where within the frame of the horse. The condition of the mouth, jaw and teeth, balance of the feet and checking the fit of the saddle etc. is always part of the assessment. Further investigation by a good equine vet, including flexion tests for lameness, X-rays, body scanning and consideration of anti-inflammatory medication will then determine the best line of treatment. When nothing is found that physically explains why a horse is displaying off-the-scale dangerous or other unmanageable behaviour it is referred to me for training.


Horse owners need to be vigilant in identifying changes in behaviour and evaluating what the possible environmental or physical antecedents may be. Alongside this owners need to be honest in sharing how they have gone about dealing with the undesired behaviours. It is vital that owners can be open about how they have managed the problem prior to seeking specialist help, and it is equally important that the specialist listens without being judgemental. The history of the situation is a key part of the picture and owners need to feel able to give the whole story. All of this information will give the practitioner/ specialist/vet or trainer a very clear picture of the situation from the horse’s perspective.  

When trying to assess why a horse is exhibiting a certain behaviour, it is important to remember that all behaviours are reinforcing for the horse in some way, shape or form, whether good or bad. Never forget to analyse its simple function to the animal: what is it achieving by doing this?

No behaviour is repeated if no reinforcement is gained. The horse will experiment to some degree to find out what works in order to rid itself of pain or what it fears.  Working back through historical circumstances is critically important. In the final analysis avoidance behaviours basically open up a window into how the horse feels about life, circumstances, and the here-and-now as well as classically conditioned associations. It can be very challenging, but it is up to us to learn how to understand this.