Why research facial expressions and ridden horse behaviour?

Owners, riders, trainers and some vets may miss, or struggle to identify, signs of pain when horses are ridden.

As a result, problems are labelled as training-related, rider-related, behavioural, or deemed ‘normal’ for that horse because ‘that’s how he’s always gone’. But we do not believe that horses are inherently grumpy or difficult. We believe horses demonstrate a range of facial expressions and undesirable behaviour when they are lame or suffering musculoskeletal pain. If the source isn’t identified quickly, and the horse continues to work, pain-related problems can become progressively worse, sometimes to the extent that even with specialist help, the problem may be incurable. Abnormal behaviour is often easier to spot than lameness, so it’s our aim to help vets and owners recognise pain in ridden horses, so that they can get help before it’s too late.

Recognising changes in facial expressions could save horses from needless suffering and chronic injuries. Enabling owners and trainers to recognise pain sooner, and get horses the veterinary care they need will make a huge difference.

Researching facial expressions and ridden horse behaviour

Many people will have heard to be wary of a horse when he puts his ears back, or would see a horse is spooked if he flares his nostrils and shows the whites of his eyes. But, signs of pain and lameness can be more subtle so we are working with horse owners and vets to develop a practical tool, known as an ethogram, which catalogues 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 early stages, the ethogram has already been successfully used by a variety of different people, and we’re hopeful that it will help owners reliably recognise different expressions in their horse’s face.

Is your horse lame?

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Is your horse lame?

Our Equine Centre offers a fully comprehensive referral service for the diagnosis and treatment of lameness, and other problems of the musculoskeletal and associated neurological systems, in horses and ponies.

Find out how our Equine Clinic can help


We are very grateful to the following for their ongoing support of this work:

World Horse Welfare.