Pain Indicators: Facial Expressions of Pain in Ridden Horses

Last Updated on November 20, 2020 by Allison Price

Studies have already explained how horses’ facial expressions can tell signs of pain. Such as from colic or castration. But what about recognizing the pain signals in ridden horses?

A whole new collection of observation abilities is a need. To recognize the facial expressions of pain in mounted horses. And a research group is working to produce that.

These behavioral findings are being used for years. And they help determine… whether the underlying cause of poor performance is musculoskeletal discomfort.

For recognizing facial expressions in ridden horses… an ethogram-a behavior observation “checklist” was created. They based their ethogram on documented accounts of facial behaviors. And 150 lame and sound ridden horses’ photographs studied.

They then developed a training manual to understand these habits. And taught 13 horse individuals how to do that. Including veterinarians, technicians, graduates of equine studies. Also, a veterinary nurse, a riding teacher, and horse owners. 

In their preparation, these individuals were then tested. The findings of which led the scientists to change the ethogram. And training and again check the same group of observers. A visual examination of 30 images of side views of the heads of ridden horses involved research. Some of the horses were lame and others were noisy.

The scientists found that strong accuracy resulted from the second round of research. Indicating that the observers appeared to spot the same behaviors in the images. The observers noticed that they did not see if the horse performed the action with such traits. Such as making a wrinkle between the nostrils. But this could be overcome with frontal view images or seeing the horse in real life.

It is still too early to identify the different facial expressions linked to pain… in ridden horses in the research process. But here are some of the “key elements” they found were the following:

  • Ears back
  • Glazed expression
  • Mouth open

Ridden horses manifest discomfort in a different way. From horses at rest by facial behaviors. Much of this is due to the restrictions imposed on them by tack and athletic specifications. That doesn’t say. Though that they don’t show obvious signs in their facial expressions of distress. And no, it’s not just about the horses listening to the signals of the riders.

Do horses love being ridden? 

No matter what the weather. And no matter how we are feeling, we love riding. Nothing beats the freedom we feel on our horses. No matter whether it’s a fun beach ride or a high-speed barrel race. But how many of us have stopped worrying? About whether our beloved horses enjoy being ridden as much as we enjoy riding them?

The good news is that yes horses like it when we ride to them. Even though it’s not so much the act of being rode. It’s more that they know that it makes us happy and that we keep them safe and take care of all their food. How many wild, untrained horses, after all, marched up to an outsider? And showed signs that they want people to ride in them? That said we all know that no one on earth could make him do it if a horse didn’t want to do anything!

Do horses suffer from riding them?

If you are sensible and take the horse into consideration. Then there is no excuse why a horse should suffer from riding. The key items that we should consider are:

woman in white t-shirt riding brown horse during daytime


Does the saddle fit right on your horse? It is important that you do not only use the correct saddle for your horse. But that it is also fitted right. A poorly-fitting saddle can cause a horse a lot of pain.

The right bit

Have you got the right kind of bit for your horse? For your horse, it is necessary to use the correct form and size of bit. Not only can the horse be harmed by too harsher bit. It can also cause him to pull against it, making it harder to handle him.

Riding position

Make sure that you sit on the saddle properly and don’t jump too much. You can put too much pressure on the wrong areas of your horse’s back by not sitting the right way.

Be gentle

In your orders, be gentle and do not yank the reins. Note that the reins are, indirectly, linked to the mouth of your horse.

woman in black jacket riding brown horse during daytime

Don’t push your horse too much

Don’t drive right away your horse to its limits. If you are training for an endurance journey, it will take time. For the two of you to develop condition and endurance. If you realize that… neither you nor your horse will be able to travel the entire distance immediately.

Rider’s size

You may think that you can ride any horse if you can. But it is vital to ensure that you are not too big for the horse. As this can cause the horse a lot of pain and discomfort.

Why do horses allow us to ride them?

You need to understand how the mind of a horse functions to understand why horses allow us to ride them. Like any other predated species, horses have three life requirements. These are to feed, reproduce, and be healthy. Those three items are their goal. And will take precedence over all else. And they are happy for us to ride them because we take care of their food and safety.

There is no question that horses still see their owners as a part of the herd. Albeit a very funny looking and funny behavioral member. The confidence between a horse and rider is necessary. They trust that what we ask them to do will not hurt or damage them at all. And are able to do what we ask without challenging it as a result.

What age should a horse for you not to ride?

Like you wouldn’t send a kid out to work. Or ask a centenarian to run a triathlon, you shouldn’t ride a horse that’s too young or too old. So, what’s too young or too old?

girl riding horse near ramps during sunset

Regardless of the age of the horse, once his legs and his knees have fully grown, no one should ride him. They are still growing before a horse’s knees have completed closing. And are at serious risk of injury. It may also result in lifelong unsoundness to ride a horse whose knees have not closed properly.

And why do the horse’s knees end up closing down? Much as people grow horses at different rates, this is not only true for different breeds. But for different horses of the same breed. So, it is difficult to assign this a fixed age. Thoroughbreds, for instance, appear to mature faster than other breeds. While draft horses and some warmbloods will not mature until they are around 4 years old.

What about when you’re expected to quit riding a horse? This is much more difficult to address. Because there are so many variables that we need to consider. What the horse’s condition is what the sound is, how he was ridden in his life. If the horse doesn’t seem to be comfortable, or it seems to be in pain, then it’s getting too old to ride.

Will it hurt the horse if we use a whip?

Although some people argue that a horse’s hindquarters are full of muscle. And that the horse cannot feel much so that they are not hurt by a whip, they may well be wrong. Yes, a horse’s hindquarters are highly muscular. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to get hurt by a whip. They will by their design, inflame the region as well as cause bruising.

The skin of a horse is resilient. Which is where the misconception comes from that they can’t feel a whip. But that doesn’t mean the whip won’t harm them or do physical damage to them. Lashings or whipping’s purpose is to discipline, in years past. Because it is fair that while the skin of a horse is much harder than ours, it will still affect them.

It is also worth noting that while no tests were being done about whips harming horses… there was also no proof to show that they did not hurt. Recent rule amendments have said that the jockey must use the whip no more than five times over the last 100m. Including in horse racing, where the whip has been regularly used.

Few ideas on how to make riding your horses less hassle for them:

Make sure no pain is being experienced by your horse

It sounds dumb to have to say this but the fact that horses can feel pain is a verifiable fact. Untreated pain is a welfare problem, whether acute or chronic. Horses are often silent sufferers. When in pain, they do not vocalize. But they often exhibit certain actions that are correlated with pain. Recent research has shown that… even subtle signs shown while riding can show the presence of horse pain.

Avoid using punishment

The use of punishment is generally used in many traditional horse training techniques. But many owners are being led to believe. That the training exercises they use are not punishment-based. Punishment is something that makes an action less likely in the future to occur again. This usually includes adding a painful or terrifying stimulus to horses. When the horse does something that the human does not want to happen.

This is where it becomes your duty. To research credible knowledge on the fundamentals of horse behavior. And how horses learn what is being known as ‘learning theory’ and apply it to your training. And riding if you want riding to suck less for your horse.

Maintain your physical health and ride a horse suitable for your skill level

We want our horses to be athletes under the saddle. And we have the same aspirations for ourselves. Maintaining our own fitness and equilibrium makes carrying us easier for our horses.

Riders should ride horses suitable for their level of capacity as well. Without guidance, an inexperienced rider may confuse, frustrate, or even punish a horse. Inexperienced riders can also train horses to show undesirable behavior. As horses should not be expected to get used to undue pressure from the legs or reins… inexperienced riders should also ride under supervision.

If the rider does not understand the impact of pressure. Or the timing of when to relieve the pressure, horses may become unresponsive to a rider’s hand or leg. This is a true matter of welfare.

Ride a horse that is ready to perform the job that you want them to do

Understand that it takes time to grow horses. And train them to be able to deal with what we want them to do mentally. Recognize also that not all horses are appropriate for the request of job riders. Asking a horse to perform physical maneuvers… that they are not capable of is unreasonable.

It is also cruel to not train a horse psychologically to deal with what is being asked of them. Horses must be trained deliberately to deal with what humans are asking them to do. Because it is the obligation of man to do so.

Be a better trainer. Reduce the number of training gadgets you are using. Avoid training activities shown to hurt the horse physically or mentally

Horses, without the need for gadgets or hard instruction… are taught and controlled easily.

Learn methods of training. That provide the horse with more choice and control over what happens to them

They are more able to cope when they feel a sense of control over stressful events. While it might sound counter-intuitive. It is possible to train horses to take part in uncomfortable activities. Such as injections or clipping. Knowing this we should understand as horse individuals. That lip chains, chiffney bits, twitches etc. should not be considered. Or used for everyday training as regular management methods.

Instead such instruments should be reserved for real emergencies. Or other situations where there is a need for temporary restraint. But no chemical restraint is possible. In our work with horses under saddle, this simple but profound shift in thinking can trickle over. Resulting in increased welfare states for the horses in our care.

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!