Katie Hennessy

How Can I Tell If My Horse Is in Pain?

Horses are creatures of habit and routine. Their personalities are consistent in a lot of situations and their behavior is key to catching illness or injury in the early stages. Horses may not be able to verbally express that something is wrong, but a change in appetite or movement, or a recent change in personality may indicate that something is wrong.


Daily care allows you to become familiar with your horse’s routine behavior and with how they react at feeding time, during turnout, or while being exercised.  Any change in normal behavior can be a cause for concern and may be due to pain. Subtle changes such as being moody or not enjoying grooming are two common changes. More obvious changes can be a usually friendly/curious horse standing quietly in the back of their stall with closed eyes or a decrease in appetite or willingness to walk.


The most obvious change in behavior that gets noticed is extreme, such as going off their feed, violently rolling, pawing, and getting up and down in rapid succession, all signs that are often seen with colic. Clinical signs of pain that you might notice just by watching your horse are muscle tremors, hunched posture, and grinding teeth. Weight loss can even be an indicator of chronic pain, particularly in a horse that is exclusively on pasture and for which feed intake may not be closely monitored. 


As a veterinarian, I have been told that a horse is lame but not in pain. This isn’t true, any abnormality of your horse’s gait should be considered indicative of pain until proven otherwise. Mechanical lameness is pretty uncommon in horses, so if you notice your horse lying down more than usual, shifting its weight, or moving abnormally, then you should have it examined by your veterinarian. 


Horses can’t tell us when they are in pain, so it is our responsibility to be observant and closely monitor their behavior for any changes. In doing so, problems can be addressed quickly and your horse can maintain a pain-free and happy life.

This column is sponsored by Polk Equine, and the opinions expressed herein may not reflect those of CFAN or of its advertisers.

BIO: Dr. Katie Hennessy graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008 with a degree in large animal health and equine medicine. She completed an advanced internship at The Equine Medical Center of Ocala and is currently the owner and practicing veterinarian
at Polk Equine. Her expertise ranges from small and exotic creatures to large animals, specializing in equine medicine.

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