The Horse in Pain

10 Aug

First a note on horse mouths in general: When watching horses being ridden or driven it’s good to keep in mind that the default setting on a horse in trot or canter is with the mouth closed. A horse mostly opens its mouth when eating, biting, whinnying, yawning, scratching itself or another horse and when a foal “snaps” with its jaws when getting too close to an older horse. A horse at trot or canter doesn’t keep its mouth open unless it’s actually whinnying or neighing at the same time. If a horse has its mouth open while being ridden or driven it is probably trying to ease pain or discomfort.

This image is also in my colleague Anna Kilpeläinen’s blog (now in English) and I found it very illuminating. What do you see in this picture?


Fortunately there have been a couple of well executed studies on pain expressions of the horse, making it easy for anyone to educate themselves more on the subject if they put in a little effort.

What did you see in the picture above?

I can tell you what I saw.

Pain. I’d even go as far as saying suffering. In this image the hand holding the rein is blameless at the moment the picture was taken: the contact seems light. Still the horse’s expression is one of suffering. How can you recognise it? At the very least from these details:

  • The position of the ears
  • The tension and expression of the area around the eye
  • The expression in the horses’ eye (or lack of it in this case)
  • The tension of all muscles

The horse in the picture may have one or several other reasons for being in pain but the one which all horse enthusiasts should have spotted instantly is the badly fitting bridle. It looks like the horse has been saddled – or bridled – with a bridle two sizes too small.

The headpiece almost digs into the root of the ear and the browband is far too short. Because of it the browband settles too high, pinching the root of the ear as well. The noseband is also too small and causes pressure to the bone above the horse’s ear. The  throat lash is too short: even when the head approaches the vertical there should still be some slack in the throat lash. This means you have to fit it very loosely when tacking up.

Both upper and lower nosebands are far too tight. The cavesson probably presses the horses cheeks into his teeth, causing pain. The lower one is so tight it prevents the horse from opening his mouth at all and even makes the lips flatten where it crosses the horses mouth.

Pain Is in the Eyes

I’m sorry for posting another disheartening image, but recognising the face of a horse in pain is one of the most important skills for anyone in any contact with horses.


A classic pain face. Ears, eyes, veins, expression around the eye. A horse cannot cover up pain in its expression as well as it can in its behaviour and this is why recognising a pain face is a very good way to notice a horse being in pain. The horse in this picture is at that moment eating the first dose of painkillers. A few days later this horse was no more.

Links to the pain expression studies:

An Equine Pain Face (PDF)

Horse Grimace Scale

If I have understood correctly, a study or two on fear expressions in horses are also on the way.


Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Horses


3 responses to “The Horse in Pain

  1. Carol Crawford

    August 13, 2016 at 3:13 am

    That is not what I see. Really hard to tell if the horse is in pain in a still photo. Too many variables. The bridle is not too tight, but the nose band is. The ear is not being crowded by the bridle. The eye could look like pain, or is it just blinking ? Can’t tell from a still photo. The throatlatch is not too tight, it is not digging in at all, just laying there smoothly. Horses in concentrated work sometimes allow their ears to flop. This horse may be doing that, can’t tell from the still photo. This author makes a lot of assumptions. A few are true, many are not.

    • Corrine

      August 23, 2016 at 4:30 am

      This is why sooo many horses are mistreated….because the human cannot feel their pain. I say Yes, that horse is very uncomfortable by the look in his eye. But if a rider wants to win that ribbon they would rather not think of the horse or its suffering because they would have to give up the glory. Horses will accept your lack of compassion and try to win for you anyway. My heart breaks for them.

    • Anton

      March 26, 2017 at 5:03 am

      Look at the “horse grimace scale” link in the blog. It will help you realise what you’re not seeing. These horse are being subjected to real pain with levels of painkillers being altered. There are very definite signs and this horse in this flash still is definitely showing such. It might not be the bridal it may be repetitive abuse of spur or joint problems or anything else as the writer explains. It could even be a single incident of pain or discomfort even physiological. The bridal is definitely not well fitted either, that alone could be causing the horse to have constant headaches from the pressure alone.


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