• Top-flight Physio

Behaviours & Musculoskeletal Pain

There is evidence that more than 47% of the sports horse population in normal work may be lame, but the lameness is not recognised by owners or trainers.

It has been demonstrated that there are differences in facial expressions in non lame and lame horses.

Dyson et al. (2018) Developed an ethogram to score pain In ridden horses, to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain.

The ethogram includes 24 behavioural markers;

-Repeated changes of head position (up/down)

-Head tilted or tilting repeatedly

-Head in front of vertical (>30) for >10 seconds

-Head behind vertical for >10 seconds

-Head position changes regularly, tossed or twisted from side to side, corrected constantly

-Ears rotated back or flat (both or one only) >5 seconds; repeatedly lay flat

-Eye lids closed or half closed for 2-5 seconds

-Sclera exposed

-Intense stare for 5 seconds

-Mouth opening and shutting repeatedly, for more than >10 seconds

-Tongue exposed and/or moving in and out

-Tail clamped tightly to middle or held to one side

-Tail swishing large movements: repeatedly up and down/side to side/circular; during transitions

-A rushed gait (frequency of trot steps >40/15 seconds); irregular rhythm; repeated changes of speed

-Gait too slow (frequency of trot steps

-Hind limbs do not follow tracks of forelimbs but deviated to left or right; on 3 tracks

-Spontaneous changes of gait (e.g., breaks from canter to trot)

-Canter repeated leg changes: repeated strike off wrong leg; change of leg in front and/or behind; crooked; disunited

-Stumbles or trips/catches toe repeatedly

-Sudden change of direction, against rider direction

-Reluctant to move forward, stops spontaneously

-Rearing (both forelimbs off the ground)

-Bucking or kicking backward (one or both hind limbs)

-Bit pulled through the mouth on 1 side (left or right)

For lame horses, the following behaviours occurred significantly more;

-ears back,

-mouth opening

-tongue out

-change in eye posture and expression

-going above the bit

-head tossing

-tilting the head

-unwillingness to go



-changing gait spontaneously

-poor quality canter


-stumbling and toe dragging

The results suggest that a sum of occurrence of over 8 behavioural descriptors during a work period of 5 minutes would be highly suggestive of the presence of musculoskeletal pain.

Recognition of these features as potential indicators of musculoskeletal pain may enable earlier recognition of lameness.

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