Adjusting the Human Perspective: Pain in Horses

A horse that is curious about training...

Many horses and humans live with pain to varying degrees on a daily basis. If you've even been injured or having ongoing pain, think about the all-consuming feeling and emotional state the pain triggered in you.
  • How functional were/are you?
  • Were/are you in a frame of mind to learn something new?
  • How was/is your patience levels?
  • How long could/can you focus?
  • Could you/can you physically stay still, get comfortable, or relaxed?

Different people have different levels of pain, and their approach to managing it or searching for and addressing the cause is delicate and exhausting.



Now imagine a horse carrying the same pain. Whether from roughhousing in the pasture and tweaking something, to human-induced trauma such as ill-fitting saddles. Or there might just be a basic lack of awareness such as not having regular dental checks.

So many other factors of a horse's care can contribute to his mental, emotional, and physical health. And just as with people, what works for one horse, may not work for another. Then there's the individual owner's thoughts, the "experts" opinions, and a zillion other influences as to "How a horse should be _____."

It can be confusing, overwhelming, exhausting to search, learn, experiment with what works for your horse given his lifestyle and workload. And then, the weather changes, seasons sweep in, and tweaks to the maintenance program may have to be made. It is an ongoing, evolving experience. And then what happens when you have two horses, that need different care? It can be a challenge.

Here are some factors to consider:
Think of diet... there are folks who enjoy fast food places and others who would never set foot in one. Those who can't fathom eating meat and others who feel they'd melt away without it.

Now think of the million horse grains, supplements, and other health products. Some people offer the basics while the other end of the spectrum there are those that are continuously changing their horse's diet. Feed, the quantity and the quality of it, can turn docile horses into monsters, and transform malnourished or depleted ones into gorgeous creatures.

Exercise... Some humans may be the cross-fit folks pumped for the 5:30am workout while others are going to put more effort into doing as little as possible.

Some riders are obsessed with continuous conditioning of the horse while others are happy to keep things to a casual hack.

Lifestyle... Some folks couldn't imagine living "remote" where wild animals are cruising through their yards and others can't imagine not living within a few blocks of restaurants, theaters, and retail stores.

Some folks fill their horse's stall with feet deep imported bedding believing they are doing what is best for their horse, while others are keeping their horses in a herd roaming about the countryside unfazed by a few knicks and scratches from the social experience.

Farrier Care...There are those people who enjoy a stylish shoe irrelevant of the comfort and others who wouldn't wear anything that isn't "practical."

Some horse owners will only keep shoes on their horse, or only keep them barefoot. Some will use one farrier "because they always have" irrelevant of how he shoes, versus another owner trying out three farriers before finding one that works well with their horse.

Tack Fit... that could be a whole post on its own.

Most horse owners genuinely have good intentions and want the best for their horses. But I don't think enough people use enough empathy in recognizing their horse is "at the mercy" of whatever approach they may be using. I have encountered so many folks who really are trying, but haven't envisioned what the horse is going through mentally, emotionally, and physically as the human is experimenting in how they keep their horse.

The challenge when the horse displays having a problem with the feed, lifestyle, farrier care, etc. is how does the human respond? And often it comes down to time and money. Although it tends to be an unspoken factor, most of the routines, lifestyles, and maintenance programs people come up with, are hugely influenced by what works for the human.

And I totally get that. But there can be a compromise, that even if something isn't ideal, there still can be changes made to try and adapt to what the horse needs. It takes effort. It takes time.

And it takes acknowledgment that if the owner isn't able to offer their horse the ideal scenario, then they need to have "room" for understanding if their horse isn't responding as ideally as possible. That if the horse is carrying a degree of pain, if he doesn't feel top shape because the ideal supplements don't fit the budget, that top "performance" shouldn't be asked of him. If his feet are in the "changing" stage and corrective or adjustments are being made in his farrier care, not to ask demanding movements or long rides of him without following through and checking out the rest of his physical state throughout his body, that may be accommodating and compensating for changes being made in the hoof. When trying out new feed, there has to be time allowed for the horse to "show" what is working or not.

So as you go through this evolving journey, please give yourself and your horse some room to learn, experiment, and search for the compromise that works for both of you. Don't judge yourself if you had good intentions but realized something wasn't working with your horse. Just keep trying to expand your knowledge and finding what works. And the best thing you can do is to BELIEVE the horse.

Horses don't "just" pin their ears when you saddle, get tight or twitch their skin when you touch them, move away every time you go to mount. If the horse is showing concern, tension, defensive, please, BEFORE you focus on the "training" first start with your horse's behavior, and assessing it for potential pain or discomfort.

With so many of the "monster" horses that I've encountered, a majority of their problems started with pain, and then the dangerous behavior followed because the human did not interpret, realize or believe there was pain.

And just as with humans, some horses can have an incredibly high tolerance and seem very functional while highly uncomfortable and yet others with minor pain can look as if they've been run into the ground.

Either way, you cannot judge the horse for his tolerance levels. You have to take the information he is offering and learn to work with it. Learn to help him. If not, what are you left with for an equine partner? One that associates the human experience as a mentally and emotionally stressful time and that it causes physical discomfort. So how much training will you actually accomplish with your horse if that is his starting point?

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