Better for Longer – how the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram evolved

Ridden horse pain ethogram

Why do talented horses with huge potential not live up to their promise or disappear from competition after a short career? 

Read all about the quest to find a solution to this vitally important issue: this scientific research project has spanned several years and remains ongoing work today.

Many symptoms of pain become obvious only when the horse is ridden. Many lamenesses are difficult to see or feel and may only become obvious when removed by diagnostic analgesia. Some behavioural signs can be a reflection of musculoskeletal pain, but there may be no lameness present. Sometimes, the rider can feel that the horse is not quite right, but the veterinarian is unable to identify any problems. Physiotherapists often find themselves treating the symptoms of a problem that remains unresolved. The vicious cycle can lead to diminishing performance or simply a frustrating lack of star quality, but in either case, there are welfare implications.

Horses can undoubtedly still work and compete successfully whilst experiencing some discomfort, but there is no doubt that if the primary cause was identified and managed, that they would perform better for longer. Nowadays, the margins between winning or not are tiny and we need to focus on the small gains to reap the rewards at the top level.

In her daily work as an orthopaedic specialist, Dr. Sue Dyson was aware that many owners, riders and coaches have a poor ability to recognise signs of pain in the ridden horse. She also knew that many members of the veterinary profession have little training in pain recognition and assessment of behaviour and limited education in identification of low-grade lameness and recognition of musculoskeletal pain as a cause of poor performance.

In a study of 506 sports horses in normal work and presumed to be sound, 47% were found to be overtly lame or had other pain-related gait abnormalities (e.g., stiff, stilted canter), thus highlighting the size of the problem (Greve and Dyson, 2014). These problems are often labelled as training related, rider related, behavioural, or deemed “normal” for that horse because “that is just how the horse has always gone.” Now, there is a way forward.

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Photo credit: Dr Sue Dyson – A team of 10 vets test the Ridden horse pain ethogram