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Signs of Pain in the Horse

The horse is a flight animal. It doesn't cry loud as a sign of pain and it tends not to show it as it might
otherwise be selected by predators. The signs are more subtle, like changes in stance.
So - observe closely and listen your your horse!

Standing back with front feet

In a relaxed position, the horse should stand with its cannon bones vertical. When it is incomfortable
for the horse to put weight on the heels, or the heels are painful, the front feet are standing back.
This is commonly found. Possible reasons include:
- high heels
- long bars
- heel, bulb, sole or bar contraction -> see navicular section

This horse is standing behind the vertical with his front cannon bones. It is a result of high, uncomfortable heels. The thermography reveals that the muscles in shoulder and neck needed for this stance - steepening the shoulder. Result is a very hard gait that is not easy to sit.

Lifting the fetlock / Broken Back Axis / Walking on the Toe

To avoid weight on a painful or uncomfortable heel, the horse pulls its fetlock up and steepens its shoulder.
The axis of the bones is "broken back". This behaviour leads to high stress on the ligaments that connect the navicular bone to the coffin bone and the small pastern bone. As a result, the ligaments start ossifying, the navicular bone gets "teeth" where the ligaments are attached. The long-term result is -> navicular syndrome.

Horse with uncomfortable hoof shape (side walls too long, heels too long, bars too long) before the trim (look at broken back axis) and directly after the trim with straight bone alignment and relaxed pastern.

Stepping under with the Hinds

The horse tries to take more weight with the hinds instead of the painful fronts, so it puts the hinds closer
to the center of gravity. The cannon bone of the hind feet are then tilted forward. The bone alignment of the hind legs is altogether more straight, making the hind part of the horse appear taller. As the hock joint receives unphysiologic pain, spavin may result. The cause is in the front feet though.

Slightly lifting one foot / Putting one foot forward or to the side

Imagine having a stone in your shoe. Something hurts. You try not to put too much weight on that foot,
you put it forward, you frequently step from one foot to the other if stones are present in both shoes.

"Bent knees" / Carpal Joint

When the shoulder and arm muscles are becoming exhausted, some horses find an easier way to put
weight on the toe: they shift their carpal joint forward.


is a very obvious sign of pain that is easily recognized. In the front feet, observe on which foot the
head is nicking (falling) - this is the less painful one. A horse may have pain in the feet without obvious
lameness though, when both feet are equally affected. Then the vet often observes "jumping lameness".

Hollows over the eyes

Often seen in older horses, but also young horses may quickly develop hollows as a sign of pain, also
psychologic pain. Likewise, if you remove the pain, the hollows may fill up again, as often seen in the
course of hoof rehabilitation, and the horse looks younger.

Pinning the ears

If walking or trotting is painful, the horse may pin the ears when the rider asks for it.
When not understood, the horse may develop more severe aggression.


Cramped stance may show up as a tendency to colic. Many performance horses die of colic at an age
around 20 years. I wonder how many are due to underlying pain.


Sweating may occur as a local response to muscle activity, so when you have a horse that sweats
unnaturally in some parts (mostly shoulder) during work, it might be because it is running unnaturally
due to pain in the feet.

Back Problems


The horse doesn't want to do something because it is painful. High or painful heels may result in
problems while walking downhill.


When the horse needs to avoid pain by walking crookedly, an uneven conformation is the result.






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