How to notice if your horse is in pain.

Horses have lots of ways of telling us they are in pain. The most common way, and the most variable way, is that your horse will “act weird” or “behave differently”.  Vital signs and some specific behaviors, like the flehmen response, demonstrate a horse in pain.


Not so scientific, right? I will run down a list of things to keep your eyes peeled for, and then also go over one very easy way to measure in most instances. Hint: it goes back to TPR – temp, pulse, and respiration.


Table of contents


When do horses show pain

Signs of lameness

Signs of colic

The digital pulse

Laminitis pain

Elevated vital signs

The flehmen response

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When do horses show pain?


  • There is a school of thought out there about how horses show pain and why so many tend to be stoic until the pain becomes too much.  Can I find any science about this?  Nope, let’s just roll with it.  


  • Horses are herd animals that are eaten by predators. So, horses need to appear healthy and not lame so that the lions and tigers and bears (oh my) won’t eat them for dinner. This can explain a lot of things – like your seemingly sound horse that all of a sudden is super lame. He just reached his threshold!


horse resting in his shelter on a pile of shavings

Abnormal resting may indicate discomfort


Signs of lameness in horses


  • Often, the rider will notice they are not as forward, their endurance has decreased, and they are snarky when you put your leg on.


  • You may even be so astute to notice they sound differently as they clip-clop along the road at your barn. Or you walk him by the mirrors and you notice that his step on the right hind is not as long as the left hind.


  • You may also want to document your horse’s hooves at every farrier visit. Your farrier can help you track wear patterns on shoes and hooves that are valuable feedback.


Signs of colic pain


  • For colic cases, another instance when pain is present, your horse’s behavior will usually tell you what’s up.


  • Weird postures, different appetite, pawing, frequently laying down and getting up, staring at the flanks, belly kicking, not eating, and even distance from the herd. For a more thorough list of colic things, this fancy article is for you.


Check your horse’s digital pulse


  • I can’t stress this enough – the digital pulse can tell you if there’s a problem inside of the hoof. Swelling in the hoof is wildly painful and can end in heartache.


  • When there’s a problem in the hoof, like an abscess, bruise, or laminitis, the structures swell and restrict the blood into the hoof. This creates a stronger pulse.


  • This is an emergency and you need to call your vet.



This video shows you how the digital artery “works” to check your horse’s hoof health.



This video shows you how to measure the digital pulse.


Laminitis pain 


  • For laminitis, you might see posture changes and slight adjustments to turning and hard surfaces.


  • Rocking back onto his hind legs and sticking his front feet out happens in some advanced cases.  It’s thought that only about 25% of laminitic horses show this posture. 


  • For the early stages of laminitis, the signs are more subtle. Your horse may look like he’s walking on eggshells trying not to break them.


  • You may see differences as your horse walks on hard surfaces, or you feel the heat from the hooves on your daily leg and hoof inspection.


  • He may also resist picking up his feet for hoof picking.



stethoscope for pulse and gut sounds

Use a stethoscope to check your horse’s pulse. An increased heart rate can indicate pain.


Elevated vital signs show pain



  • Your horse’s heart rate (the P for pulse in TPR) will typically elevate from his normal when he’s having pain. Again, know the normal and then you can be alerted.


  • His respiratory rate can increase, too, and you may even see sweating. One reason I check TPR every day when I groom is that your horse’s TPR will tell you long before his outward signs will be.


  • I have caught laminitis, viruses, and colics with TPR monitoring alone. If you don’t have a stethoscope, you can pick one up inexpensively. It’s also fun to walk around with one and pretend you are Doogie Howser.


  • Your horse may also sweat when he’s in pain. This is sometimes hard to determine if the weather is horribly hot already, but knowing what’s normal for your horse is a great place to start.


A refresher course on your horse’s vital signs


The flehmen response is also another signal of pain.


  • Horses curl their lips to take in smells, but they will also wiggle their lips, flare their nostrils, and show the flehmen response when in pain. For more on the flehmen response, read this article.


horse flipping upper lip in flehmen response

A fine demonstration of the flehmen response.



For a list of things to go in your horse’s first aid kit, read this.

For common first aid techniques in horse emergencies, read this.



In a nutshell – #knownormal. When you spot something weird or off, put on your detective hat and get to work. Start with vital signs and go from there.



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