Facial Expression and Lameness

Does your horse have a training issue or is he in pain? Is your horse just a typical chestnut mare or is she lame?

The assessment of facial expressions in ridden horses could potentially aid early recognition of pain related lameness or training issues.

In certain situations, owners, riders or trainers can have trouble discerning between bad behaviour attributable to lameness versus that which is caused by training, temperament or rider related issues. Likewise, pain associated with gastric ulcers or dental disease may similarly be dismissed. It is not uncommon for some pain related behaviours to be regarded as normal for a particular horse because "he always goes that way."

In such situations, the horse remains in training instead of being referred to a veterinarian for assessment. Eventually, the problem progresses and the risk is that by the time the horse is presented to a veterinarian, the problem will have become too advanced to be resolved or managed as well as it might have been with earlier intervention.

It has been well documented that horses have extremely expressive faces. Furthermore, when horses are experiencing discomfort their facial expressions change. Professor Sue Dyson who is the Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust in the UK, recognised that when lame horses had their source of pain eliminated by diagnostic analgesia (i.e. nerve blocks) their facial expressions changed.

In a study of over one hundred lame horses, lame horses were found to exhibit one or several of the following facial characteristics when ridden: 

  • severely above the bit 
  • twisting of the head
  • asymmetrical position of the bit
  • altered ear position (both ears back, one back and one to the side, one back and one forward)
  • characteristic eye features such as exposure of the sclera (white) of the eye, the eye partially or completely closed, muscle tension caudal to (behind) the eye, or an intense stare.

Professor Dyson has developed an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses such that assessment of facial expression could potentially improve recognition of pain related problems in ridden horses. The ethogram consists of a catalogue of facial expressions focussing on the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position. Furthermore, when people were trained to apply the ethogram they could reliably differentiate between lame and non lame horses based on facial expression alone.  

Professor Dyson and her team at the Animal Health Trust are in the process of putting together an easy guide for vets and owners to use and this will be available in 2018.

You can view an interview with Professor Dyson about this work and examples of the various facial expressions indicative of pain here.

How is this useful: 

Recognition of changes in facial expression could potentially enable those working with horses to recognise pain earlier and thereby seek veterinary assistance sooner to find the source of that pain before chronic lameness or behavioural problems develop.  By reviewing video footage of your training sessions you may be able to determine if your horse's training issues are pain related by looking for pain related facial expressions.