Indications and Signs that A Horse is in Pain

Last Updated on November 20, 2020 by Allison Price

Since horses are prey animals in the animal world, they attempt to mask their discomfort. This could be because they need to remain with the herd. So, when they show visible signs of discomfort, they are the product of a severe condition in most cases.

Although their distress may not be very obvious… very subtle signs of discomfort or pain in horses can be identified. And if we learn to recognize them, we can handle them before they get worse. Causing more severe problems, hence the importance of recognizing them.

Defining Pain

According to its definition, pain is a more or less intense, painful or unpleasant. Localized and subjective sensory perception that is being felt in one part of the body. It is being triggered by the excitation. Or stimulation of specialized sensory nerve endings resulting from a disease.

We can say that pain is a feeling that causes us to shield our body from physical harm.

Do horses hide the pain they feel?

We have seen many horses with misdiagnoses. Especially when their behavior is being linked to the diagnosis. So, some conditions may receive the wrong label. It can be hard-mouthed, wider back, sleepy. What many experts or coaches do not see is that horses do not function in such ways only to frustrate us, humans. There is a secret injury under such manifestations, irritating them.

Being prey animals, horses have adapted as much as possible. To conserve all their resources. Their ability to control the energy is essential to their survival. And their evolution is being conditioned. In the case of young people, they can only use it in such situations. Like reproduction, avoiding risk, fighting or playing.

man in blue and white striped dress shirt and blue denim jeans standing beside brown horse

So, to avoid being eaten by predators, horses will try to conserve their energy. And because they optimize energy storage, they conceal their pain.

Throughout their evolution, was it useful for horses to conceal their pain?

The expression of pain, as we have said, is our body’s effort to avoid physical harm. If the horses mask this manifestation, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel the pain. They just don’t make it visible. They would not be able to fleet with the herd if they showed their discomfort from lameness, for instance. And would become easy targets for predators. Who usually attack stragglers or weaker animals. That is why it was important to survive this developing ability to hide pain.

These are the true reasons why before exhibiting a strong lameness… a horse in pain modifies its gait or actions. So, injury can be too severe if there is such an overt manifestation of pain.

Of course, horses also have behavioral concerns. But they are usually induced by stress, diet, the climate or improper training.

Sudden Changes in Behavior

When the behavior of your horse changes and there are no other changes in its daily life. Such as odd movements or vibrations. The appearance of new objects. You must first make sure that there is no discomfort behind that behavior.

Here are a few cases:

  1. To avoid being mounted, a horse with a bridle that is too tight on a sore blister can toss its head.
  1. When asked to do so, if the horse does not want to bend, it is because the movement is painful. And not because your horse is ‘stubborn.’
  1. It could be due to muscle soreness and not to “laziness” if the horse does not want to walk or go faster.

We have to assume that they tend to hide it when horses are in pain. And they are also susceptible to unnecessary neurological impulses.

Getting a very busy brain or a brain with a lot of noise, in neurological words… means that the body sends so many messages to the brain. And it becomes overburdened.

The brain or the (consciously or unconsciously) nervous system tells the body what to do. At the same time, signals are being sent to the brain by the various parts of the body. To make it aware of what is happening. And then it determines how to respond.

For example, our brain wants to know where we are in space when we are standing and leaning in a vertical direction.

Thus, when the brain of a horse is in a “hyperactive or noisy” state, it gets so much input from its body (pain, tension, etc.). And cannot be processed. And on top of that it receives information from the outside world. That of course, worsens the brain’s inability to sort out too much information.

Then the horse becomes very anxious and uncontrollable, as a result.

For all these purposes, with the help of a veterinarian or the necessary specialist… I expect you to learn to interpret these conditions. So that you can expect potential pain. Or discomfort that your horse might be hiding. Tell-tale signs are some change in its normal behavior or in the way it walks.

Manifestations of Pain

We are now going to explore various bodily manifestations. That will help us understand this problem of secret pain.

Head and neck held high

The position of its head and neck is being changed by a horse in distress. And tries to keep them above the normal position.

This results in a strain of the neck. That in turn induces pressure in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). That is the joint that links the jawbone to the temporal skull bone.

Tight jaw

A tight jaw can be the product of a high head and neck position. As we have said before. But it may also be the result of other issues with your teeth and mouth.

A horse with this kind of problem will constantly begin to move the bit. Attempting to bring the tongue over the bit. And you will also begin to find that the horse, as they term it in equestrian jargon, becomes hard-mouthed. And evades the bit, which means that the condition is serious.

For this reason, it is also important to check the teeth at least once a year. Or as we have already said to check the TMJ. And to watch for injuries to the mouth of the horse. As well as any other problems other than the teeth.

A tight jaw can be because of the elevated location of the head and neck. As well as dental or other mouth-related issues.

A horse having an upside-down neck

The overdevelopment of the under muscle of the neck and a raised head is an upside-down neck. And it can be a sign of pain in the chest muscles of the horse. But more often it can be the product of poor training.

This elevated location of the upside-down neck and head… leaves the horse’s hind legs backwards and the front legs forward. Impeding the proper working of the shoulders. And all this deepens the shift in the muscles of the neck. Preventing the horse from relaxing. And lowering the neck, which cannot be extended as the horse runs. And making the bit out of reach.

If this happens, we first have to check to see that there is no harm. Treatment should be applied in the event of discomfort. And a separate preparation approach should be used. In the event of inappropriate training.

Excessive lying down

Have you noticed that your horse is lying down longer than usual? 

brown horse lying on green grass

This may be a sign that while standing, your horse feels uncomfortable or in pain. Now, checking your horse for underlying issues is advisable.

Muscle atrophy and stiffness

It could be due to a change in the way the horse stands if the upper profile of the horse changes. And the spine appears excessively low (the horse loses its topline).

Muscle loss in the back, without understanding why… or muscle stiffness may be another explanation. Since the horse is trying to protect an area in pain from an irritating movement. In this case, we must contact the proper specialist. Veterinarian or equine physiotherapist at once. To assess the causes and address them

Uneven shoulders

A big red card is the uneven shoulders. Look closely at your horse’s shoulders if your saddle moves to one side all the time. Or if you feel more weight on one stirrup than on the other. Even though both are the same length.

This inconsistency is due to the fact that one of the front legs lifts the horse. Overloading the other one. 

This may be because of the so-called low heel syndrome. When there is one hoof in the horse that typically runs at a much lower angle than the other, higher-angled hoof. Or other pain in the forelegs of the feet. Whatever the trigger, there is something we need to do. Specially to restore the normal angles of the horse’s hoof.

Worried eyes

The muscles around their eyes move when horses are in pain. Giving them a concerned look. Of course, when they are concerned about an outside situation, this may also happen. Something that causes them annoyance. But in this scenario, when they get used to the new situation, their eyes can become comfortable.

brown horse

Fascia lines

Fascia lines suggest that the region where the line appears is being overworked by the horse. If it is at a large distance from the fascia line or near it, this may be due to discomfort in a different region. Once the underlying problems are solved, the fascia lines vanish.

Pelvic angle

To propel the horse-whatever sort of horse you have. Or whatever use you make of it – a horse needs the pelvic region to be very efficient. If a horse is in pain, the pelvic angle can change. Depending on how the horse compensates. Or deals with the pain, it may turn or stay flatter. 

This change in the angle of the pelvis causes the mobility of the pelvis to decrease. The way the horse moves is being altered. And this results in joint problems with the sacroiliac (SI).

Problems in the hindquarters, are not the only cause of this shift in the angle of the pelvis. Most of the time the issue is in the front part of the horse. And a way to reduce the pain is this change in the pelvic angle. 

This is another sign that your horse might be in discomfort. When you look at your horse from behind. And it is standing. But the croup looks uneven. Even if there is no visible lameness.

Lumbar spine

If the lower spine of your horse (the area where the rib cage and the pelvis meet) … is too rigid or the back is being raised in that area, it is possible that your horse is in pain.

Tail stuck between the legs

It can be a sign of discomfort if you have trouble raising your horse’s tail… which is very normal when there is a shift in the pelvic angle.


When you ride it, does your horse still have the same posture? 

When grazing, does the horse still bring the same foot forward? 

When you stop walking, can your horse keep its feet in line? 

In various cases, understanding the usual stance of your horse… and keeping an eye out for subtle adjustments in the way it moves is the best way to notice if your horse is in pain.

Coat color

Sudden changes in the color of the coat, may be a sign of discomfort in your horse. Such as white spots or washed components. 

This may be due to a change in the flow of blood. Caused by fascia constraints and blood vessel pressure.


When a horse is in pain, its muscles work even harder. To stop those movements causing the most pain. And to compensate for the weakness of the irritated region. 

Before it starts running, the horse will get exhausted. And it will not consume enough food either.

The feet

Almost all day the horse is on its feet or hooves. So, the horse may try to compensate for that if it hurts.

If the shape of the hooves has changed or if the hooves appear fragile, swollen and cracked… you can immediately go to the right specialist. And see if your horse’s feet are in pain.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!