The Problem with Pain in Horses

Oct 31, 2013 by Butler2318 Category: Horseshoeing 0 comments

Farriers and veterinarians alike have (or should have) the horse’s welfare in mind. We do our best to make horses comfortable and would never purposefully harm a horse. We want the horse to be safe. We want the horse to be healthy. We do not want the horse to hurt! It would be nice if horses could speak (or at least if more horse practitioners could understand what they are saying) for then we would know exactly what is ailing the horse. There is little research as to how the horse perceives pain. The problem with pain in horses is that there isn’t a consistent way to measure it or quantify it. And even if there was, that measurement would be skewed by subjective data from individual horses with different experiences. Horses, like people, react to pain differently. Without measurements there is no science.

Some horses have a higher pain tolerance than others. The same is true of humans. Doctors use a scale of 1 to 10 to determine how much pain a person is in (1 being little to no pain and 10 being extreme pain). But one person’s pain rating of 3 might be another’s 8. Someone conditioned to pain might break an arm and rate the pain at a 4. Yet someone who rarely experiences pain might get a paper cut and rush to the emergency room for pain killers. An independent horse in an enormous amount of pain might not exhibit it because of its nature (doesn’t want to be perceived as weak to others in the herd) whereas another horse that is coddled might get a minor sole bruise and exhibit extreme signs of lameness. Some horses that have been in pain for a long period of time find ways to cope with it and stop showing signs.

A few years ago I was riding horses with my mother. She was thrown from a horse and broke her back in several places. I called an ambulance and when the paramedics arrived they asked her what her pain level was on a scale of 1 to 10. My mother (not knowing yet that her back was broken) said, “Maybe a 5?” What the paramedics didn’t know is that my mom had given birth to seven children in her lifetime so relatively a broken back might not have seemed that bad! If it had been me, I might have said a 10 or an 11.

There is a tendency to blame the feet or the shoes if the horse seems to exhibit signs of pain or discomfort especially because those signs aren’t obvious to the unskilled eye until the horse moves (walk, trot, etc.) But equine practitioners would do well to look at the horse holistically before making such a limiting diagnosis. It would seem silly to anyone if a person had kidney stones and was hunched over and walking in an abnormal gait because of the pain and the doctor says, “It is probably the shoes that are bothering him. Get him some new shoes.” As ridiculous as that sounds, many inexperienced horse people are doing exactly that when they see a lame horse. Sometimes, we are too quick to judge. We need to get in a habit of looking above the feet and see that there is an animal attached up there with a possibility of all kinds of ailments.

The following story was told by an instructor at a horseshoeing school. A group of veterinary students and their instructor came to observe a horse that was lame but otherwise looked like it was in good condition. The horse was wearing a blanket and kept in a clean paddock. After determining no pain with the hoof testers in the feet, the horse was examined through a series of flexion tests and nerve blocks. No signs of lameness could be found in the legs. Someone then observed that the horse had recently been shod and everyone agreed that the shoes must be causing the lameness. They suggested the shoes be pulled off and left. After everyone had gone, the horse owner took the blanket off of the horse and found a bullet wound in the horse’s shoulder. A stray bullet from a drive-by shooting or a hunter had hit the horse and it bled very little. When the horse started showing signs of lameness, everyone was quick to look at the feet. It was very embarrassing for the veterinary students.

To avoid this kind of embarrassment and more importantly, to best help the horse, we need to look over the whole horse. We need to take time to look for signs of pain or determine how we can help. Here are a few things we can do: 1) Look over the whole horse as well as run your hand over the horse, feeling it. Sometimes, by feeling the horse you will “see” things with your hand that might otherwise be invisible to a naked eye or could be obscured by a heavy or winter coat. Often times a bowed tendon may be difficult to see but easy to feel. 2) Observe the horse to see where it seems most uncomfortable or what triggers pain. Recently, I was trimming a horse that was behaving very well and suddenly it started fighting me when I would lift the hind feet. A student that was working nearby noticed that the horse seemed to wince and “tighten up” in the back every time I went to pick up a hind leg. This student also knew something about equine chiropractic therapy and as she felt the horse’s back, she found that a vertebrae was out of alignment causing the horse pain when it lifted the hind legs. 3) Listen to the owner or the person who is with the horse the most. He or she will know the horse better than anyone else and can offer insights as to what the horse has been up to recently (if it has been eating, drinking, in a new pasture with new plants, kicking the stall, fighting with another horse, etc.)

If we take time to follow these steps, we will be able to better determine where the horse’s pain is originating and get them the help they need from the veterinarian or the farrier. Even though pain is immeasurable, horses should have their pain addressed whether it is a 2 or a 10 on a pain scale because horses react so differently to pain. Something that seems like a small problem could become worse if the horse doesn’t handle pain very well and the issue isn’t addressed. Because we have the horse’s welfare in mind, the amount of pain the horse is in may be less important than determining what the cause is and how to help the animal.

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