• bluecatequestrian

"Oh, he is just being naughty!" - Recognising Pain in Ridden Horses

How many times have you heard these sorts of phrases....

''He is just being naughty''

''Thats how he always looks''

''She isn't lame, she is just a poor mover''

''Push him through it, he needs to learn he can't behave like that''

Unfortunately I hear comments like this on a regular basis, but I very rarely agree! I don't believe horses are 'naughty' and just because a horse has always 'moved that way', does not mean it's normal. Despite this, it is still not always easy to know if your horse is experiencing pain and, therefore, it often goes undetected.

Cue the creation of.......

Photos by Sue Dyson

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

A powerful tool, which can be used by anyone, to help detect pain in ridden horses...and it really is helping to challenge these common phrases.

In 2018 the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE), which describes 24 behavioural markers, was created by Dr Sue Dyson. The Ethogram was developed by comparison of lame and non-lame horses. The majority of the 24 behaviours were at least 10 times more likely to be seen in lame horses than in non-lame horses. If a horse displays ≥8 behaviours from the RHpE when ridden, it is likely the horse is experiencing musculoskeletal pain (Dyson et al.,2018a; Dyson and Van Dijk 2018). Since publication of the RHpE, studies have been conducted to validate its use; topics including assessor reliability (Dyson et al., 2019a) have ensured the RHpE can be used effectively and accurately - (I was lucky enough to be involved in one piece of this research...see my previous blog post!). It is hoped that the RHpE will become an essential part of all equestrians 'toolkit' to help improve ridden horse welfare.

Below is a summary of the Ridden Horse Ethogram:

  1. Repeated changes of head position (up/down)

  2. Head tilted or tilting repeatedly

  3. Head in front of vertical (>30°) for >10 s

  4. Head behind vertical for (>10°) >10 s

  5. Head position changes regularly, tossed or twisted from side to side, corrected constantly

  6. Ears rotated back behind vertical or flat (both or one only) >5 s; repeatedly lay flat

  7. Eye lids closed or half closed for 2–5 seconds

  8. Sclera exposed

  9. Intense stare for 5 s

  10. Mouth opening  shutting repeatedly with separation of teeth, for >10 s

  11. Tongue exposed, protruding or hanging out, and/or moving in and out

  12. Bit pulled through the mouth on one side (left or right)

  13. Tail clamped tightly to middle or held to one side

  14. Tail swishing large movements: repeatedly up and down/side to side/circular; during transitions

  15. A rushed gait (frequency of trot steps >40/15 s); irregular rhythm in trot or canter; repeated changes of speed in trot or canter

  16. Gait too slow (frequency of trot steps <35/15 s); passage-like trot

  17. Hindlimbs do not follow tracks of forelimbs but deviated to left or right; on three tracks in trot or canter

  18. Canter repeated leg changes: repeated strike off wrong leg; change of leg in front and/or behind; disunited

  19. Spontaneous changes of gait (e.g. breaks from canter to trot or trot to canter)

  20. Stumbles or trips repeatedly; repeated toe drag

  21. Sudden change of direction, against rider direction; spooking

  22. Reluctant to move forward (has to be kicked  verbal encouragement), stops spontaneously

  23. Rearing (both forelimbs off the ground)

  24. Bucking or kicking backwards (one or both hind limbs)

I have also added links below. These will take you to a few of the research papers which have been published on the RHpE:

A quick google search will also bring you up lots of information.

I have used the RHpE myself. I will admit, at the beginning it took some time to get to grips with, and I had to spend some time watching horses in both videos and real-time and applying the RHpE. Now its almost second nature, like changing gear when you're driving. Whenever I watch a horse work, whether as an instructor or a physio, I have the ethogram in the back of my mind and just make a mental note of anything I notice. If I am particularly concerned, I will ask the client if they are happy for me to undertake a full RHpE assessment. I find it a really useful tool and will continue to use it regularly. If you would like to have a go at using the RHpE, I can highly recommend the online course offered by Equitopia (link below). It is an easy to follow, interactive course which allows you to practice and test yourself as you go along. I have done the course and it is 100% worth doing!

Now, if you have read this blog post and are thinking that your horse may have underlaying musculoskeletal discomfort, that you had not previously recognised, firstly, don't panic - you won't be the only person in this situation. Secondly, seek the opinion of your veterinary surgeon. Discuss with them why you think your horse may be in pain and ask for their advice. They are there to help!

I could talk about the RHpE for hours on end.... but the cats are yowling for food, the pasta is about to bubble over and the pony is on an another escape mission! Hopefully I have inspired you enough to do some more reading for yourself. Thank you for joining and heres to hoping "my horse is just naughty" becomes a phrase of the past!


Dyson, S., Berger, J., Ellis, A., Mullard, J, 2018a. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Application and Research, 23 (1): pp. 47-57.

Dyson, S. and Van Dijk, J. 2018. Application of a ridden horse ethogram to video recordings of 21 horses before and after diagnostic analgesia: reduction in behaviour scores. Equine Veterinary Education, [Online] available at:[Last accessed 3.2.2020].

Dyson, S., Thomson, K., Quiney, L., Bondi, A., Ellis, A., 2019a. Can veterinarians reliably apply a whole horse ridden ethogram to differentiate non-lame and lame horses based on live horse assessment of behaviour? Equine Veterinary Education. [Online] Available at:[Last accessed 3.2.2020].

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