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News Article

Facial expressions can indicate pain in ridden horses

Experts at the Animal Health Trust have developed a facial expression ethogram to help vets and owners identify signs of pain when horses are ridden.

Owners, riders and trainers may not recognise signs of pain when horses are ridden. As a result, problems are often labelled as training-related or behavioural (the horse is just being naughty), or deemed ‘normal’ for that horse.

Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust (AHT), and her team have developed an ethogram to help owners identify signs of pain from a horse’s facial expressions when being ridden. The ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions including the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position. Each body part can display an expression which may be normal, or reflect pain, conflict behaviour or distress.

In its first stage of testing, the ethogram was successfully applied by a variety of people from different backgrounds, to a selection of photographs of horses’ heads while they were ridden. Using the ethogram these individuals could identify different expressions in each horse, such as positions of the ears, changes in the eyes, and tightness in the muzzle. The results were highly repeatable among the analysts proving that, with guidance from the ethogram, owners could potentially reliably recognise different expressions in their horse’s face.

Stage two tested if the ethogram could be used to distinguish between sound and lame horses. During this phase, a pain score (0-3) was applied to each of the facial expressions (mouth, eyes, ears etc.), and then totalled to determine an overall pain score for each horse. 519 photos of horses which had been categorised by Sue to be lame or sound were assessed. A total of 27,407 facial markers were recorded, with results showing that there was a scientifically significant difference in pain scores given by the assessor for clinically lame and sound horses. The facial markers showing the greatest significant difference between lame and sound horses included ears back, tipping the head, eyes partially or fully closed, tension around the eye, an intense stare, an open mouth with exposed teeth and being severely above the bit. To further prove the effectiveness of assessing pain in a horse with the facial expressions ethogram, a selection of lame horses underwent lameness assessment and nerve blocking (using local anaesthetic solution), to alleviate the pain causing them discomfort when ridden. Comparison of their facial expressions before and after using local analgesia showed a significantly lower pain score once the pain causing lameness had been removed.

The next stage of the project is already underway, with the development of a whole horse ethogram.


Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq) by Jessica Mullard, Jeannine M. Berger, Andrea D. Ellis and Sue Dyson, published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2017) vol. 18, pp. 7-12

Can the presence of musculoskeletal pain be determined from the facial expressions of ridden horses (FEReq)? by Sue Dyson, Jeannine M. Berger, Andrea D. Ellis and Jessica Mullard published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2017) vol. 19, pp. 78-89

Article details

  • Date
  • 02 May 2017
  • Source
  • Animal Health Trust
  • Subject(s)
  • Horses and other Equines