I am a human who lives in chronic pain due to a rare neuro-spinal condition. I often struggle to articulate that or to get those around me, including doctors, to even try to understand how I’m feeling. I might not outwardly look all that ‘lame’ but inwardly my nerves and joints are on fire, constantly. Sometimes this makes me grumpy. Sometimes it makes me sad.
Now imagine if I was a non-human animal, in chronic pain but unable to verbalize, unable to speak up, unable to show people where it hurt, denied an opinion, emotions or a right to rest, self-medicate or ask for time off, constantly told I’m stupid or naughty, subjected to increasingly aversive experiences until I eventually give up and stop even trying to speak.
Often, the owners of horses with behavioural issues spend a well-intentioned fortune getting various checks done, find no clinical signs of pain, say “his saddle/back/teeth have been checked, he is fine” and blame the behaviour on “just how he is”. It is safer, however, to assume that even if the cause is not found the horse is still in pain. Best case scenario, the source of the pain is found and fixed, but they still have pain association from the time they battled the pain. Arguably the worst case scenario is that the horse gives up trying to show how much pain they’re in and shuts down, reaching Learned Helplessness, a level of deep depression that most of us can only imagine.
Even for horses that are not yet shut down, recognising pain has historically been a challenge, not just for owners but also for vets and trainers. However, there is now an abundance of evidence to show the behavioural signs a horse might present when he is in pain. These can be subtle and almost imperceptible: small changes to their eyes, muzzle, nostrils, ears, the muscles in their face and the level of tension in their body, before they reach more overt signs. Spending time getting to know what these signs look like and learning what is ‘normal’ behaviour for our horses can allow us to pick up on these changes and quicker identify when something is wrong. Then we can take the necessary steps to help them.
As a human, I know how hard it can be to speak up when I’m in pain, how difficult it can be to verbalise how I feel, how much effort it takes to carry out the smallest of tasks when the pain is dominating my every thought. Generally, as a human, I am fortunate to have choice, autonomy over my decisions and actions, the ability to ask for help and the confidence that I will be listened to. Our horses deserve to be afforded the same.
Dyson, S. et al (2019). Can veterinarians reliably apply a whole horse ridden ethogram to differentiate nonlame and lame horses based on live horse assessment of behaviour? Equine Veterinary Education. doi:10.1111/eve.13104
Gleerup, K. B. et al (2015). An equine pain face. Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, 42 (1), 103-11