Signs of Pain in Horses & What to Do About It

July 07, 2023 5 min read

There are many different causes of pain in horses. Some common causes include injuries, infections, and arthritis. Horses can also experience pain as a result of poor nutrition, improper hoof care, or dental problems. It is important for horse owners and caregivers to be aware of the signs of pain in horses, which can include changes in behavior, appetite, and movement. By recognizing these signs early on, horse owners can help to prevent further damage and provide the necessary care to alleviate the horse's pain.

Signs of Pain in Horses

Horses are stoic animals that often do not show obvious signs of pain until it becomes severe. As a responsible horse owner, it is essential to be aware of the subtle and obvious signs of pain in horses to ensure their well-being. Here are the signs of pain in horses that you should look out for.

Obvious Signs of Pain

Horses in pain may exhibit obvious signs that are easy to recognize, such as:

  • Lameness: Horses may limp or walk with an uneven gait.
  • Colic: Horses may exhibit signs of abdominal pain, such as pawing, rolling, and lying down frequently.
  • Laminitis: Horses may stand with their front feet stretched out in front of them.
  • Biting: Horses may bite at their sides or other areas of their body.
  • Injury: Horses may have visible injuries, such as cuts, scrapes, or swelling.
  • Kicking: Horses may kick at their stomach or other areas of their body.
  • Unusual posture: Horses may stand in an unusual posture, such as holding their head low or standing with their back arched.
  • Lying down: Horses may lie down frequently or refuse to stand up.

Subtle Signs of Pain

Horses may also exhibit subtle signs of pain that are not as easy to recognize, such as:

  • Sweating: Horses may sweat excessively, even when they are not exercising or in hot weather.
  • Swelling: Horses may have swelling in their legs or other areas of their body.
  • Pawing: Horses may paw at the ground or stall floor.
  • Rolling: Horses may roll frequently, even when they are not experiencing colic.
  • Facial expressions: Horses may exhibit facial expressions of pain, such as wrinkling their nose or tightening their lips.
  • Horse grimace scale: The horse grimace scale is a tool used to assess pain in horses by evaluating their facial expressions.

It is crucial to be aware of the signs of pain in horses to ensure their well-being. If you suspect that your horse is in pain, consult with a veterinarian immediately.

Types of Pain in Horses

When it comes to horses, pain can manifest in various ways. Understanding the different types of pain can help horse owners identify potential issues and seek appropriate treatment. Here are three common types of pain that horses may experience:

Musculoskeletal Pain

Musculoskeletal pain is a type of pain that affects the muscles, bones, and joints of horses. This type of pain can be caused by a variety of factors, including arthritis, navicular disease, and injuries. Horses with musculoskeletal pain may exhibit symptoms such as lameness, stiffness, and reluctance to move.

Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain in horses can be caused by a range of issues, including colic, gastric ulcers, and other digestive problems. Horses with abdominal pain may show signs of discomfort, such as pawing, rolling, or lying down frequently. They may also exhibit a lack of appetite and decreased manure production.

Pain from Wounds

Horses can experience pain from a variety of wounds, including cuts, scrapes, and punctures. Pain from wounds can be acute or chronic, depending on the severity and location of the injury. Horses with wounds may exhibit signs of pain, such as limping, swelling, and reluctance to move.

It's important to note that while these are common types of pain in horses, there are other types of pain that horses may experience as well. Even behavioral changes under saddle can be a sign of discomfort that could be as simple as a bad saddle fit or as severe as kissing spines. If you suspect that your horse is in pain, it's important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan. 

Treatment for Pain in Horses

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to manage pain in horses. These medications work by reducing inflammation and swelling, which can alleviate pain. Some of the most commonly used NSAIDs in horses include phenylbutazone (bute), flunixin meglumine (Banamine), and firocoxib (Equioxx).

Bute is a potent pain reliever that can be administered orally or intravenously. However, long-term use of bute can cause gastrointestinal issues and kidney damage. Banamine is another NSAID that can be given orally or intravenously but can cause ulcers in the stomach and colon. Equioxx is a newer NSAID that is administered orally and has a lower risk of causing ulcers and other side effects.

Corticosteroids are another class of drugs that can be used to manage pain and inflammation in horses. These medications work by suppressing the immune system's response to inflammation. Corticosteroids can be administered orally, intravenously, or directly into the affected joint. However, long-term use of corticosteroids can cause a range of side effects, including weight gain, laminitis, and immune system suppression.

Other Pain Medications

In addition to NSAIDs and corticosteroids, there are other pain medications that can be used to manage pain in horses. Surpass is a topical cream that contains diclofenac, an NSAID. Legend and Adequan are two injectable medications that can be used to manage pain and inflammation in horses with joint problems.

Overall, the choice of pain medication will depend on the cause and severity of the pain, as well as the horse's overall health and condition. It is important to work closely with a veterinarian to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for each individual horse. In the case of colic, you and your vet will need to follow an immediate, round-the-clock protocol to address the root of the discomfort, which can include walking, fluids, electrolytes, mineral oil, NSAIDs, and even (in extreme cases) surgery.

Supportive Therapies for Pain

Far-infrared therapy has shown to be extremely effective in helping relieve many forms of short- and long-term pain, including soreness and stiffness from routine work to even chronic conditions such as arthritis. Check out the Benefab® Equine Therapy Products line to find the best fit for your horse. 

When to Call a Veterinarian

Horses can experience pain for a variety of reasons, and it is essential to know when to call a veterinarian for help. A veterinarian can properly diagnose and treat the underlying cause of the pain and prevent it from worsening or causing further harm to the horse.

One of the most important signs to look out for is a change in behavior. If a horse is usually calm and cooperative but suddenly becomes agitated, restless, or uncooperative, it may be a sign of pain. Other signs of pain can include a decreased appetite, lethargy, lameness, or difficulty moving.

In general, it is better to err on the side of caution and call a veterinarian if there is any suspicion of pain or discomfort in a horse. Early intervention can prevent the pain from worsening and causing further harm to the horse.



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