Home News Is your horse naughty or is he actually in pain? The answer is written all over his face – AHT Facial expressions research

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Is your horse naughty or is he actually in pain? The answer is written all over his face – AHT Facial expressions research

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AHT Facial Expressions

Experts at the Animal Health Trust Equine Clinic are on a mission to help you recognise pain in your horses so you can help them before it’s too late. There’s evidence to show that owners, riders and trainers have a poor ability to recognise signs of pain seen 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”. Unfortunately this means pain-related problems often get progressively worse and, if not referred to a lameness specialist early enough, are too advanced to be resolved or managed as well as they might have been if they were spotted sooner. Dr Sue Dyson and her team are developing an ethogram for professionals and owners to help you identify signs of pain from your horse’s facial expressions when being ridden. An ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions involving the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle mouth and head position, which may be normal or reflect pain, conflict behaviour or distress.

The first stage of the study tested whether the ethogram, which was particularly developed for ridden horses, could be applied to a selection of photographs of horses’ head while they were ridden, with repeatable results – for example, could they notice different positions of the ears, the whites of the eyes, or a tightness in the muzzle? The results showed that assessors from a variety of backgrounds were reasonably reliable in identifying the different facial expressions.

The next phase of the study is to determine whether the ethogram can be used to distinguish between non-lame and lame horses by applying a pain score from 0–3 to each of the facial expressions, and then determining an overall pain score for each horse that’s evaluated. Once fully tested, if successful, this will be a huge step in improving equine welfare, so look out for the next update from our Charity of the Year…

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