Your Horse’s Facial Expression Can Signal He’s in Pain

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price

You can tell if your horse is hurting by carefully observing his facial expression.

Is your horse acting strangely during training? Perhaps he is recovering from an injury or seems depressed. Could he be experiencing pain? He could only talk.

He can, we just have to learn to listen. You’ve probably spent your entire life reacting to your horse’s ears and expressions. Recent research on horseman instincts has led to more detailed studies of horse facial expressions and their meaning.

This article will explain the Equine Facial Activity Coding System (EquiFACS), and how horse’s facial expressions can be used to determine his feelings. This article will also cover other facial expression research that can help determine if a horse feels pain and how to use this information to assess your horse.

We’ll end with a discussion on what we still have to learn about horse facial expressions and what it might mean for horses all around the world.

The expressions of your horse’s face can tell a lot about his feelings. Find out what scientists have discovered and where science is heading.

Mallory Beinborn

The Science

In the 1970s, facial action coding (FAC), was developed for humans. This involves the analysis of each facial muscle movement and any resulting changes in facial appearance. This tool can be used to analyze mental illness, measure pain in patients who are unable to communicate in other ways, and even to identify facial recognition technology. Facial-expression analysis is considered to be the best way to gauge pain in children as young as three years old.

FAC has been done with nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, gibbon monkeys, dogs, cats and, now, horses.

Researchers at the University of Sussex, UK, first dissected the superficial muscles of horses to develop the FAC system. This allowed researchers to identify how the muscles interacted with the skin and to understand how this would affect facial movements.

After defining the anatomy, researchers analyzed 15 hours worth of video from 86 horses to identify each facial movement. This is called an “action unit”.

What did they discover? The research team discovered that horses can perform 17 facial movements, compared to 27 for humans in a 2015 study. Only cats are more expressive than horses, while cats have 21. This may be due to feline’s detailed whisker and eye movements.

Since then, the EquiFACS system used to document these movements has been proven reliable and repeatable by trained observers. This provides a solid tool for researchers looking to further study facial expressions in horses and their meanings.

A Focus on Pain

Research on the equine facial expressions of pain has also been done. A study by a Danish research team was published in 2014 that examined the existence of an “equine-pain face” and described its characteristics. (See “What ‘Pain Face Looks Like?” on page 56).

A different research team had already developed the Horse Grimace Scale to help evaluate horse pain. They first examined horses that had undergone castration, a common surgical procedure. They established six facial-action units to observe pain when it was present. The intensity of facial movements could be used to estimate the pain level. They developed a scale to grade pain from this information, which has been used in several studies, including one that was done on horses suffering from laminitis, a very painful condition.

The ability to observe facial expressions has many advantages over other methods of assessing pain in horses such as gait evaluation or palpation. It’s easy to do facial-expression analysis. And because it only focuses on the horse’s face it is safe even for horses with severe pain. It allows horse handlers to classify pain levels from mild to severe. This makes it a great way to keep track of whether the condition is improving or responding to treatment.

Your horse may be suffering from pain if it has asymmetrical ears, partially closed eyelids, tightening of the chewing muscles, or partially closed eyes. Be aware of changes in your horse’s behavior and know what is normal.

Assessing Your Horse’s Face

How can you tell if your horse is in pain by looking at their facial features? Here’s what you need to look for at the most basic level.

Facial feature #1: Asymmetrical, backward-facing ears. If your horse is in pain, his ears will turn backward. It can appear that his ears are pointing backwards. (Note: Fear may also cause backward ears. This component of the horse pain face must be taken into consideration along with other factors.

Tighten the eyes. Your horse may feel pain if his upper eyelids are partially closed. It should cover at least 50% of the horse’s eye. This could indicate severe pain.

Facial Feature #3 – Tension above the Eye. His upper eyelid appears angled or V-shaped because of tightening muscles above his eyes. His sclera, the “whites” of both his eyes, might be visible above his inner corner. The bones above his eyes can appear more prominent than usual due to this feature.

Facial Feature #4 – Prominent, strained chewing muscle. Your horse will have more tension in his mouth. You may notice a strained chewing muscle along your horse’s side. This could indicate serious pain. (Note: Strained chewing muscles can be a sign that you are afraid, just like backward ears.

Facial Feature #5 – Mouth strain and pronounced chin. The horse’s upper lip will appear to be slightly droopy, giving it the appearance of a more pointed, obvious chin.

Facial Feature #6 – Strained nostrils. The nostrils of your horse will appear somewhat squarish at the sides. His profile will appear flattened.

Putting These Ideas to Work

What do you think about these descriptions? What is the expression on your horse? What should you do if your horse’s expression is telling you he’s in pain? These are some real-world examples that will show you how this evaluation technique might be useful.

Scenario #1: Not Quite Right

Your evening ride is about to begin when you arrive at the barn. You arrive at the barn for your evening ride and your horse doesn’t seem to be interested in his meal. He also doesn’t seem very happy to see you, even though he has his apple-flavored treat. You measure his temperature (it is normal) and listen to the gut sounds. They are not loud but you can hear them. It was 100 degrees outside today. Are you a hot, grumpy horse or is there something more?

What is his expression? He stands on crossties, his ears pointing backwards and his eyes half-closed. Notice how his nostrils flare and the tightness of his chin. You think he may be suffering from pain based on what you know about his facial features.

What should you do? Call your vet if your horse is showing signs of colic. To be sure, you request a visit.

The result. Your horse will begin to pass large quantities of manure within 24 hours.

You can detect the problem by paying close attention to your horse’s facial expressions before he starts to exhibit the more obvious signs of colic such as rolling and pawing. Your horse may have avoided a more severe episode of colic by paying attention to his face.

Scenario #2: Training Troubles

Your horse has been a great partner in your training, but he changed his mind recently. He started to wag his tail last week when you asked him for the left lead, and even let out some big bucks. His reaction is still uncharacteristic despite the fact that you have increased your training requirements in preparation for a big event. You can tell he isn’t lazy and doesn’t seem to be sore.

What is his expression? You love the soft expression of your horse’s face. His eyes are big and beautiful. You notice that his upper eyelids are angled in a V-shaped shape when he stands in his stall. You can also see the muscles running down his cheeks. It almost seems like he is gritting his teeth. According to facial expression research, he is clearly showing signs of pain.

What should you do? Call your vet. He will perform a complete soundness evaluation, but cannot find any obvious problems. You can see that your horse is normal, moving well and has no sensitivity to any kind of palpation. All his flexion tests are also normal. You are convinced that your horse is feeling pain and decide to have a bone scan (nuclear sintigraphy), which can be used to diagnose any active inflammation or other subtle issues.

The result. Scintigraphy detects a “hot spot” or source of inflammation near the horse’s stifle joints. Your veterinarian recommends a rehabilitation period and believes that your horse will fully recover. However, if you had continued to work your horse, it might have been different. You might have prevented a minor injury from becoming serious.

Scenario #3: Rehabilitation Woes

Your horse was recovering from a tendon injury. He was doing well until he fell during a hand-walking class yesterday. Although you don’t notice any heat or swelling, you were supposed add trotting tomorrow. You aren’t sure if you should. He might have re-injured that ligament during the blow-up.

What is his expression? Although your horse has been happy and bright for several weeks, you now notice that his ears are slightly asymmetrical and that his eyes are closed. These are the only signs you can see, and they’re subtle. However, your knowledge of facial expressions will help you to realize that your horse may be suffering from pain.

What should you do? Call your vet to get advice. Your vet will advise you to delay trotting work for a couple of more weeks due to the obvious signs of pain and swelling you have described.

It will determine the outcome. Your vet will advise you to wait before adding the trot to your horse’s rehabilitation program. Your horse will be back to his happy, healthy self within a week. His ears are open, and his eyes are wide open. Your rehabilitation plan is implemented and everything goes smoothly.

You can monitor your horse’s progress in rehabilitation by using his facial expressions. This will increase your chances of success and minimize the chance of him suffering a setback.

In the Future…

You can observe your horse’s facial expressions in everyday life and assess whether he is in pain. It is also useful for researchers to identify welfare issues, trainers to evaluate their training methods, and veterinarians to monitor the success of treatment.

What’s the next step in researching specific facial expressions of equine horses? It will take time to see, but I am eager to find out which facial expressions correspond with positive emotions like happiness and gratitude. Let’s face facts: Your horse’s expression is his best way to tell you what he thinks. You’ll be more likely to reach your goals together if you have a conversation.

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!