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Facing up to the truth about ‘naughty’ horses and pain

PUBLISHED: 00:14 04 September 2018 | UPDATED: 07:21 04 September 2018

Dr Sue Dyson with a horse at the Animal Health Trust.
Picture: Animal Health Trust

Dr Sue Dyson with a horse at the Animal Health Trust. Picture: Animal Health Trust

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If your horse puts back his ears, opens his mouth or bucks while being ridden he’s definitely trying to tell you something. But it may not be what you think. Sheena Grant reports on a pioneering study being carried out in this region.

If you want to know if your bucking, rearing or spooky horse is being naughty or is actually trying to tell you he is in pain the answer, it seems, could be written all over his face.

That’s the message from a ground-breaking study led by Dr Sue Dyson, head of clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust’s centre for equine studies near Newmarket, which has the potential to transform the welfare of ridden horses.

Dr Dyson has developed an ethogram - a catalogue of facial expressions and 24 ridden behaviours - to help vets, owners and trainers assess if a horse is in pain.

The ethogram was put to the test on a panel of vets as a method of assessing equine performance during a study at World Horse Welfare’s centre in Norfolk earlier this summer and the accuracy of the results is now being assessed.

The research, which took place with the help of 20 volunteer horse and rider combinations and a range of experts, is, says the trust, a crucial step in verifying the ethogram as a method of helping vets detect low-grade musculoskeletal pain in ridden horses and could change the way vets assess horse behaviour and recognise pain, leading to better diagnosis worldwide.

“Behavioural differences between the lame and non-lame horses in the study were very apparent,” said Dr Dyson. “I am currently cross-referencing analysis of the volunteers’ results with me as the Gold Standard. Early indications show that by giving vets a clear understanding of pain-associated behaviour markers they will be better able to recognise pain-related behaviour in ridden horses and communicate potential performance problems more effectively with their clients.”

Dr Dyson, a world-renowned expert in equine orthopaedics, says previous studies have shown that horses with colic show changes in their behaviour and facial expressions and she had long thought the same could be true with ridden horses that were in pain.

“I was very aware that owners and riders seem to be rather slow to recognise that their horses have got physical problems that are compromising their performance,” she said. “They tend to blame the horse’s behaviour - saying it’s a naughty horse - or the trainer blames the rider. Everything is assumed not to be because the horse might be experiencing discomfort. It’s been clear to me that many pain-related problems have been overlooked as a result of this.

“Studies also show that riders are not very good at detecting lameness and I thought well, if we can demonstrate scientifically that changes in facial expressions and other aspects of behaviour are a manifestation of pain that may be something they could see for themselves.”

So Dr Dyson and her team set about developing an ethogram, cataloguing facial expressions involving the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position, to help them identify signs of pain from a horse’s facial expressions when being ridden.

Common things that owners might label bad behaviour but which could actually be pain-related include bucking or kicking out after jumping a fence; spooking, fidgeting when being tacked up or more subtle behaviour such as having the ears back for some of the time, the mouth open or a change to the look in a ridden horse’s eye. .

“These are potentially things that are more easily detected by a lay person than being able to detect lameness itself,” says Dr Dyson.

“I really hope this study will make more people aware that changes in facial expression can be and probably are a reflection of pain. If we can encourage owners to seek help earlier then diagnosis can be made sooner, when a problem is easier to treat.”

Horses taking part in the study at World Horse Welfare were initially assessed by animal physiotherapist Jo Spear before Society of Master Saddlers saddle fitter Liz Suddaby checked each horse’s saddle. The horses were then given a 15-minute ridden warm-up before doing an eight-minute purpose-designed dressage test, which was scored by a team of 10 equine vets for the presence of 24 behaviours that may reflect pain. The tests were filmed by Dr Dyson to aid assessment and allow for factors such as rider skill level.

There was good feedback from the vets involved. Helen Whitbread, of Deben Valley Equine Veterinary Clinic, said: “This system is such a useful tool; most of the factors we were scoring were not a surprise, but being able to quantify the pain in a way that a client can understand and relate to is priceless.

“Too often in the past our suggestions that a horse is demonstrating abnormal ridden behaviour because of pain has been brushed aside as: ‘It has always done that’. Now I can say, for example: ‘Yes, it has scored >8 and is therefore likely to have been in musculoskeletal pain the whole time you have owned it’.”

An overview of the study will be presented at the Saddle Research Trust Conference in December.

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