Heard the joke asking a horse ‘why the long face?’

Well Dr Sue Dyson and her team are proving that a horse’s facial expression can be no laughing matter.

Latest research from our Centre for Equine Studies, seeks to produce a practical tool to help owners, riders, trainers and vets recognise signs of pain, from a horse’s facial expressions. When a horse is ridden, unfortunately changes in facial expressions are not widely understood by owners and trainers as a horse displaying when they are in pain. This means a horse’s health and welfare can be at threat, as veterinary assistance is not sought early enough – if at all.

In the first of two videos, Dr Sue Dyson (Head of Clinical Orthopaedics) explained the common problems mistaken for pain, why the study is so important, and what it could mean for horses, owners and vets in the future. The first video has had 74k views, reaching 190k people. It ignited a huge debate online about understanding equine behaviour and body language; as well as receiving comments from owners who now feel guilty for not taking note of these facial expressions sooner to help their horse, and from other professionals agreeing that these expressions can be recognised, but are amazed at how often they are not.

The second video is now available online, giving those people working with horses an insight into how the ethogram has been developed by the Animal Health Trust research team, how it was tested to ensure it could be applied by a broad range of people within the equine industry, and whether or not the ethogram is effective in not only helping recognise signs of pain, but could differentiate a lame horse from a sound horse.

Watch and Share the video: https://youtu.be/CsyAggivCDA

The problem:

There is undisputed evidence to show that owners, riders and trainers have a poor ability to recognise signs of pain seen when horses are ridden. As a result, problems are labelled as training-related, rider-related, behavioural, or deemed ‘normal’ for that horse because ‘that’s how he’s always gone’. Unfortunately that means pain-related problems are often disregarded, the horse continues in work, and the problem gets progressively worse. If pain goes unrecognised and is not referred to a lameness specialist early enough, problems become too advanced to be resolved, or managed as well as they might have been if spotted sooner.

Dr Sue Dyson with horseThe aim:

Recognition of changes in facial expression could potentially save horses from needless suffering and chronic injuries, by enabling owners and trainers to recognise pain sooner, and get these horses the veterinary care that they need. Developing a practical tool for recognising facial expressions, similar to that of a body condition score chart, could dramatically improve the health and welfare of all horses – which is something Sue and her team at the Animal Health Trust continue to work towards.

The ethogram:

The ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions including the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position. Each body part can display an expression which may be normal, or reflect pain, conflict behaviour or distress.

Developing the ethogram:

In its first stage of testing, the ethogram was successfully applied by a variety of people from different backgrounds, to a selection of photographs of horses’ heads while they were ridden. Using the ethogram these individuals could identify different expressions in each horse, such as positions of the ears, changes in the eyes, and tightness in the muzzle. The results were highly repeatable among the analysts proving that, with guidance from the ethogram, owners could potentially reliably recognise different expressions in their horse’s face.

Applying the ethogram:

Stage two tested if the ethogram could be used to distinguish between sound and lame horses. During this phase a pain score from 0 – 3 was applied to each of the facial expressions (mouth, eyes, ears etc.), and then totalled to determine an overall pain score for each horse. 519 photos of horses which had been categorised by Sue to be lame or sound were assessed. An amazing total of 27,407 facial markers were recorded, with results showing that there was a scientifically significant difference in pain scores given by the assessor for clinically lame and sound horses. The facial markers showing the greatest significant difference between lame and sound horses included ears back, tipping the head, eyes partially or fully closed, tension around the eye, an intense stare, an open mouth with exposed teeth and being severely above the bit.

To further prove the effectiveness of assessing pain in a horse with the facial expressions ethogram, a selection of lame horses underwent lameness assessment and nerve blocking (using local anaesthetic solution), to alleviate the pain causing them discomfort when ridden. Comparison of their facial expressions before and after using local analgesia showed a significantly lower pain score once the pain causing lameness had been removed.

For Sue and her team the study does not end here, with the next exciting stage of the project already underway with the development of a whole horse ethogram – keep a look out for the next stage (and for your horse’s expression!)

Animal Health Trust UK

See also: Is your horse naughty, or is he actually in pain? The answer is written all over his face …
Facial expressions research at the Animal Health Trust will help vets and owners recognise pain in ridden horses before it’s too late.