Pain Management: Helping Your Horse Lessen the Pain

Last Updated on November 20, 2020 by Allison Price

brown horse with brown leather horse saddle

Nobody wants to see their horse in pain. With our current understandings, it is impossible to imagine. That there was a time when people didn’t believe that animals could experience pain. Or assumed that pain should not be handled. Because feeling pain could benefit the horse.

Experts and veterinarians now accept that pain is endured by animals. And that it is important to address the painful aspects of pain. It is also important to understand, though accepting pain as a fact for horses… that the pain encountered by a horse cannot be calibrated the same as that of a person. Since our brains have different stages of growth.

It is also important to note that for some significant reasons… our methods for treating pain in horses vary from humans. For one, horses are not the best recovery administrators on their own. I haven’t seen a horse, yet, ready to relax in a recliner.

Classifying Pain

There are many classifications or systems of observation. That can help us comprehend the pain that a horse can experience. These descriptive systems, including length, location, intensity or origination… are based on a variety of parameters. Since pain is a dynamic multidimensional fact. Severity classifications and interpretations can help decide the best available management protocols. Based on existing options for treatment.

If it includes some tissues, such as superficial structures (skin) the musculoskeletal system. Or visceral tissues (intestines) may be defined by pain. Osteoarthritis, laminitis, navicular disease and bowed tendons are examples of musculoskeletal system pain. The most common clinical symptom of pain that originates in the bowels or abdomen is colic.

Pain, either acute or chronic, is often categorized by its length. When it has been present for more than three months, pain is usually known as chronic. Acute pain, as from accident or sudden onset of colic symptoms, is usually assumed to be a recent onset. Effective acute pain relief can help lessen chronic pain severity and duration. More shortly on that.

The strength of how a horse expresses pain is another way that pain can be in category. In many horses, moderate discomfort can be hard to detect. Moderate and extreme pain can be easier to recognize. Because it is easy to understand the external symptoms. Methods of recognizing facial signs can make it easier. To recognize even mild pain (e.g., Horse Grimace Scale).

Managing your horse’s pain

The natural body reaction of inflammation is one of the most common origins of pain. Inflammation is part of the natural reaction of the body to injury and illness. And it is also an important part of the processes of tissue healing. Major negative events can occur. When pain associated with inflammation becomes unbearable for a horse.

Pain, heat, swelling and redness are the hallmarks of inflammation. Inflammation can contribute to pain in a variety of ways. Including the release and presence of chemical mediators (such as prostaglandins). That are common after damage to the tissue. One technique used to moderate inflammation and treat acute or chronically active pain… is to prevent or inhibit the development of these chemicals. By using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

In general, pain treatment requires many strategies and treatments. And relies on several variables. Including whether the pain is acute or chronic.

Short-Term Strategies (Acute Pain)

Acute pain is short-lived. And is commonly caused by a sudden illness or accident. A tendon injury, being kicked by another horse. Or the abdominal pain of a sudden colic episode may be examples. Pain associated with surgical operations is also included. The aim of treatment is to keep the horse healthy as it recovers. And lessen the risk of any acute pain causing further health problems.

Early successful treatment and management of acute pain will reduce… the risk of transitioning into a state of chronic pain. Successful treatment of acute pain stimuli can also help prevent the “wind-up effect.” With constant, managed pain, this wind-up syndrome can occur. Such that the presence of pain becomes more and more difficult to control. Increased and more drugs may be a need when facing these conditions. But they become ineffective.

Ice, rest, medicine and bandages can be used in first aid for an acute injury. Pharmaceutical management is the best-known technique to treat acute pain. And inflammation as part of the first-aid plan. The aim of medical management is to provide relief from pain. But to preserve the protective behavior of the horse. It is necessary, not to mask pain that has a protective mechanism (e.g., fracture of the limb). For the horse or the owner, veterinary attention does not make the situation more serious.

Depending on the form and severity of pain. There are many medication types which are sometimes considered. For example, acute colic-associated pain often responds well to NSAID flunixin meglumine (Banamine®). Synthetic opioid butorphanol (Dolorex®). And systemic alpha-2 agonists such as xylazine or detomidine. Both of which have deep sedative and pain-relieving effects in horses.

Long-Term Strategies (Chronic Pain)

For long periods of time, chronic pain continues. And may not be directly connected with a single triggering incident. Osteoarthritis, chronic laminitis and navicular disease are examples. Owing to the wear and tear of training. And performing at a high level, performance horses often develop chronic pain.

To treat chronic pain, NSAIDs are widely and effectively used. Phenylbutazone (bute) is an NSAID often used for the long-term treatment of pain. Since it works well and is cost-effective for musculoskeletal inflammation and pain. A properly controlled dosage and frequency of use should reduce concerns. About the use of NSAIDs. The best way to use this family of drugs is frequent consultation by your veterinarian. Horses that usually eat and drink generally do well on the bute.

Most horses tolerate NSAIDs very well. But these items should be used and controlled the right way, as with any medication. Alternative pain treatment protocols, which may include dietary and behavioral improvements. As well as complementary and alternative treatments. Such as acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care or shock wave therapy… may do well for horses with established sensitivities to NSAIDs.

To reduce inflammation and improve healing… there are also local and regional treatment options that your veterinarian can recommend. Diclofenac (Surpass®) is an NSAID that can be administered. If the precise position of the horse’s musculoskeletal pain is known.

Inflammation and pain control may include:

  • Hyaluronate (e.g., Legend®)
  • Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (e.g., Adequan®)
  • Stem cell therapy
  • Other biologic therapies (Interleukin Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP), Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP)) … for joints and other synovial sites
  • Steroid injections.

Each horse is distinct. And will involve an individualized approach to pain management developed by your veterinarian.


Although it is difficult to ask equine patients to put their feet up… and relax until an injury is healing or pain is gone, there are several ways to treat pain in horses effectively. You are in the best position to determine the discomfort level of your horse. Since you are most familiar with his usual habits and behaviors. It’s important to let your veterinarian know. As soon as possible if you notice something is wrong with your horse.

The most effective means for controlling inflammation and discomfort… and helping to bring your horse back on the path to recovery is a team approach to treatment.

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!