Horses and the Pain We Can’t Stop.

The Grandfather Horse: Dirt Bath Interrupted.

We’ve all done it. We look at that horse and just know he’s in pain. We watch his walk until the foot with the white stocking lands badly, crippled by its color. In the saddle, we close our eyes and wonder if he’s off. We scrutinize the horse’s calming signals until he freezes, stalked by an upright coyote. We’ve all made the vet call, only to have the symptoms disappear when the vet arrives. The feeling that something isn’t right stays. Great, no diagnosis for the horse but we think we have a mental illness. It would be funny if it weren’t all too true.

Rule number one is always the horse’s welfare. Is your horse sound? You’ve heard it so often that it loses meaning but stay vigilant. Most horses we think have “training issues” are just telling us they are in pain. At the same time, horses work hard to hide weakness. Prey animals don’t lie but they aren’t forthcoming. It’s just smart to put up a good front. Especially if a vet/predator who smells like other horses, blood, and even stranger things, drives up in a truck. Any prey animal with one wit of sense will go stoic. “Nope, I’m fine. It’s the donkey.”

The absolute best of us spends months thinking something is wrong with our horses, being told by a vet that there is no problem, nothing to worry about, but we don’t believe them. So, we google endlessly, educate ourselves in ways we couldn’t before. We continue to observe and trust our gut feelings, get a second or third opinion, only to find out eventually that we were right, our worst fears are confirmed, and somehow then have less trust in vets.

Please don’t blame vets! Horses do not speak English as they try to hide symptoms. Horses are lousy patients. Sometimes it seems to us that human medical care has progressed so far, that vet science must be right there, too. It’s just not true, but veterinary science is evolving constantly and there are good scholarly articles on recognizing pain. I recommend the Equine Pain Ethogram. It’s important information to have on hand. I should also warn you though, you’ll notice behaviors your horse is exhibiting now. You’re looking for a change from consistent normal behavior, not a one-off. You’ll need careful perception. Like usual.

Horses never fake pain. Scientists agree that horses don’t have the frontal lobe capability to plan deceit or disrespect. They don’t concoct diabolical plans to escape work, but they do have a good memory. This opens the possibility of a horse showing pain symptoms from expectation or memory of a similar situation. Even in something as ordinary as tacking up, a recent study revealed only 35% of the saddles fit properly and nearly 70% of the horses showed some lameness. More troubling, the owners were not aware there was a problem before it was pointed out. Conformation and age are factors with pain. Most horses have arthritis by fifteen, with the initial beginnings between four and six years old, true even if the horse is lightly ridden. Age happens. Then, even if the pain is resolved, it’ll take a period of time for a horse’s pain behaviors to go away. Can we ever be certain?

Some pain is diagnosable and some isn’t. Some pain eases with movement and some worsens. And just like humans, some pain is inevitable.

Some will say we shouldn’t ride horses, as if that was the miracle cure for congenital anomalies, poor hoof condition, or gastric issues. As if feral horses never have injuries or pain or age-related conditions. It’s always easier to look away than deal with a mess of contradictions and help horses; easier to quit than consider the benefits of riding for a horse.

Does the nebulous nature of pain, the circling-around anxiety of not knowing, topped by the fear of causing your horse even more pain, paralyze you? That seems like a fair response. It’s enough to make you spooky and tense, to make you chew your lip and squint your eyes.

As much as we want a clean answer, we can only live in the question. If training causes pain, then can a different sort of training help alleviate it? Horses benefit by moving and staying engaged so we do the same, attending to details, constantly improving all we can. Most importantly, take the horse’s calming signals seriously. Never write off abnormal behavior as cute or silly. Stay curious, not complacent, and uncomfortably willing to see pain when it’s small. Trust our horse’s calming signals over our feelings.

We can train kindly, exploring the horse’s anxiety with finesse, allowing the horse a voice. The true relationship begins when we ask clarifying questions that build confidence and lessen anxiety. Horses will test our commitment and sometimes we’ll have doubts. We’ll make mistakes and we’ll try again. Intuition will improve.

If a horse won’t pick up a hoof one day, we’ll ask him to shift his weight and reward him for the effort, knowing something hurts. If a horse is reluctant to move forward, we know it isn’t natural, so we look for soreness, give the horse time off, consider supplements. If a horse is fussy in the bridle, we take his word that our hands need some help and get some lessons. We listen to what we don’t want to hear, knowing that the horse who pins their ears does it for a reason. Then we stay in the conversation, honoring the horse’s nature. Knowing that life will take its toll, but we’ll meet the challenge. For all the magic and fantasy that horses give us, there will be a morning after. Eventually, pain may win but we will have flown together. The magic isn’t in riding but in gaining language and understanding with another species, so unlike ourselves.

Finally, that photo above. The horse is certainly in pain. He’s over 30. He’s lost his topline, his front legs are shot, his hips decidedly bovine. During his life, he spent four and a half years on stall rest from injury. He was not a particularly athletic horse and he had a slow learner in the saddle, but we did our best, never gave up on each other, and shared a life of pain and brilliance. At this age, it was a struggle for him to stand up even without the pointy-hooved pain in his backside. But still, that’s no reason to not enjoy a cool dirt bath and the fall colors.

The real problem is there’s no cure for the pain of loving horses, but to live in the moment and make peace with the rest.

New classes at The Barn School start soon, including Calming Signals, reading signs of pain and anxiety in horses.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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22 thoughts on “Horses and the Pain We Can’t Stop.”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As an aging rider with aging horses we are all working through our pain and how to keep moving in partnership with respect and understanding. Thank you for bringing this subject out into the open.

  2. Thank you for this. So often I see those ignorant comments – oh he’s faking it, oh he just doesn’t want to work today, oh he’s lazy. Those comments make me sad and angry. I do my best to drop my pat answer which includes the part about horses literally not having the part of the brain to manufacture such deceit. I’ve been accused of bleeding heartism, liberalism, socialism, etc and my effort to encourage thoughtful and humane treatment of animals, equids included. Slowly, slowly things change. Slowly, slowly things stay the same ?

  3. Shared the link to this site with a young woman who recently took over the 25 horse strong trail riding business just up the road from me.

    She was looking for some online instruction, as she’s currently into the hunter/jumper style of riding, and we have no (qualified) riding instruction here on the island. I had mentioned to her mother (the former owner I had trail guided for back in the day) how much I’d enjoyed the three online classes I participated in with Anna.

    To be honest – considering the daily struggle of pointing out pain + poorly fitting tack + inadequate nutrition issues when I was an employee, that were rarely acknowledged or addressed because the almighty dollar carried more weight than the well-being of the horses – I couldn’t foresee things going much further than a cursory look over the landing page and imagined comments about crazy old ladies…

    After some reflection it occurred to me that even if the chances of this young woman seeing the light and changing her ways were infinitesimal, it was worth a try, for the horses’ sakes. As they say around here – a rising tide lifts all boats.??????

    • Christain, I am sorry to say I see both sides of this… How do you ethically manage a herd that large, on the income from a small business? I can’t imagine and I’m sure it was a hard job, thankless in many ways. Overwhelming. At the same time, this is a job where a bit of education would be a real asset. this is how small lameness becomes chronic. Sigh. And when I mention signs of pain to clients, I don’t always get a good result. We would rather think the horse is resisting us than telling us… but the tide, she does rise. Thanks, great comment.

  4. As you know, this topic is always present in my relationship with Zen Bear. One time you had suggested I continue working with him, including riding, until we have a clear indication from him that he is stressed- physically or emotionally. That seems like a good guideline to me, tho’ occasionally I am paralyzed by concern for his welfare, and know I never fully understand his status.

    Pain is another area where it’s sometimes hard to find the middle ground ! I think of friends who ride horses who are girthy, bite when getting tacked up, have been told their saddles are hurting their horses and how they dismiss all that so easily. But yes, as others have said, the tide is turning. Thanks to YOU and others like you who speak up for the horse.

    • Zen Bear is living the question in a few ways. I don’t think it’s possible to understand, but your horses are a great example of negotiating. Horses are always changing, just like we are. For as much as we like absolutes, they don’t exist. So it’s a good day for a conversation. Thanks, Sarah. Hi, to the boys.

  5. Hi, your article reflects 300% my view!!! I was so glad to read it. I have learnt to trust my gut feeling and my sons when we feel something is not right with our horses. Our pony took 2 years before he dared to show how bad he actually was. He finally trusted us and our vet to show how much back pain he had. He was so scared to be rejected as not useful. My new stallion arrived two weeks ago and started after one week showing big uncomfort going to the right and my first reflex was to ask my Ostheopath to come and see him and I was so right. He was completely blocked in his body on the right side. Others told me no it is just behavior and you should not manipulate before braking in. Imagine putting a saddle on a completely blocked body ?. I know I can read my horses and they trust me to pick up the cues so they are so expressive! Just wished more people would take the time to analyze better their horses ?

    • Thank you, Sofia. Making sure a horse is sound should be the “price of admission” for riding. Great job of avoiding a really rough start for a new horse.

  6. While hindsight always seems to be better than foresight, three cheers for the calming signal!! When employed, it’s a great discoverer that pain’s afoot. Thank you, Anna, for introducing me to this valuable tool. I use it often.


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