One of the challenges of equine massage therapists, veterinarians and horse owners is that horses cannot talk. They cannot give us their health and injury history. They cannot tell us the pain is here, or if I do this, it hurts. They cannot tell us if the pain is sharp or aching. They cannot tell us if something just does not feel right.
Horses May Not Talk, But They DO Communicate
Horses do not talk, but they do communicate. A muscle twitch, stomping of a foot, nodding or shaking of the head, licking and popping the lips, threats to bite or kick, and moving away from pressure are the way horses ‘talk’ to us. Speaking as a massage therapist, these communications give us important information. It allows us to trace the pain pattern and develop a treatment plan.
Do You As An Owner or Trainer Listen?
As a horse owner, do you ‘listen’ to your horse? When your horse begins to act up or refuses to do a task, do you automatically assume he is just being belligerent? When you lead him out to saddle and the horse shows signs of stiffness and soreness, do you think once he gets going he will come out of it and be fine? Does it ever cross your mind that your horse is saying, “Hey buddy, I’m in pain, can you help me out?”
Subtle Signs of Muscle Pain In A Horse
The signs of muscle pain in your horse can be subtle and are often dismissed. Some of the signs that your horse is experiencing muscle pain are:
- Carrying the head too high or too low
- Throwing the head up and down or excessive shaking of the head
- Difficulty bridling
- Will not pick up the bit
- Lays into the bit
- Unwilling to turn or bend the head or neck to the side
- Reacting when the girth is tightened
- Squirming when saddled
- Crow hopping or bucking when rider mounts
- Rounding the back or sinking in the back when mounted
- Difficulty breathing
- Prefers to jog, lope, or gallop. Does not want to go into an extended trot
- Has problems picking up leads
- Cross-fires in the back-end ( term used when a horse picks up one lead in the front and another in the hindquarters)
- Has trouble maintaining a circle while loping or galloping, has a tendency to drift in or drift out
- Will not tuck hindquarters when stopping, bounces to a stop
- Refuses to sidestep or move sideways
- Tendency to charge and rush to complete task
- Rushing and dropping shoulder at barrels
- Rushing a jump
- Overly anxious in the roping box
- Overly anxious in the starting gate
- Becomes touchy around certain areas of the body
- Jerks foot away while cleaning feet or shoeing
- Other ‘behavior’ problems that are reoccurring
Behavioral Problem or Muscle Pain?
All of these can be considered behavioral problems. Sometimes it is just that, a horse pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. But often these are signs that something hurts. If the behavior happens every so often, chances are the horse is being testy. But if the behavior is reoccurring, it is very likely the horse is in pain. As an owner/trainer, it is important to keep an open mind. If a horse continually exhibits a behavioral problem or difficulty completing a task, muscle pain should be a consideration. If the pain or discomfort is identified and treated quickly, the pain and behavior problems are usually quickly resolved. If the pain is not identified and treated it will progress requiring more treatments while the ‘bad behavior’ escalates
Take a deep breath, let go of preconceived ideas, and consider your horse’s actions. Is he trying to tell you something?