The Face Says It All: Horses’ expressions give clues to state of mind and health |

The Face Says It All: Horses’ expressions give clues to state of mind and health

by Savanna Simmons
for Tri-State Livestock News
A horse shows when he's relaxed and feeling good.
Relaxed horse–photo by Savanna Simmons
The Look By Bo Brock, DVM A kind horse gets a look on its face when it needs your help. It is this look that makes my job amazing. I have known the look for as long as I can remember, but not until recently did I realize the effect it has on me. Quick was the horse’s name. I had known this horse for years and kept her going though some pretty rough times. We had done colic surgery on her a few years back. She nearly died and had some complications during the recovery period that were rough and painful. But she pulled through. She had arthritis in several major joints and moved slowly even for a 25 year old. But laminitis had taken her now and it was the bad kind. This kind of founder is when the bone sinks in the hoof capsule and the prognosis is grave at best. The owner wanted to do whatever was necessary, but some things just can’t be fixed. This disease is painful. Just try to imagine if all of your fingernails were slammed in a door and turning red and then black…and then imagine if you had to stand with those fingers holding all of your weight all day long. It is agonizing and watching a horse go through it sickens me. It was evening and the day was cool and nearly over. We had prepared a special stall for Quick and made her as comfortable as is possible with such a terrible condition. I was about to go home and decided I would make one last trip by her stall to check on her before I left. As I stood looking through the open gate I was blessed to see that look from her. It is a soft look with an accepting glance, followed by a neck stretch toward me that is welcoming my hand and yearns for relief and security. It is the innocent asking humbly for help when no other avenue is possible. It is trust. Yes, a trusting look that I will be kind back to her and fix the things she can’t change. This look seems to smooth the tired wrinkles that occupy the corners of the eyes and reflects a little hope that the doctor has arrived and now things are gonna get better. The ears fall a little away from the midline and perhaps even sag towards the cheeks a bit. The top lip tightens slightly and softly moves from side to side like a soft welcome is being whispered. It is this look on a kind horse’s face that makes what I do remarkable. I am sure if you have horses you know the expressions they reflect and the moods they go through and I am sure that even the gruffest old cowboy holds a tender place in his heart for the looks that horses give. Sometimes the best sentiments in life are reflected simply by expression. Horses and people hold a bond that is filled with conversation yet never a spoken word. Tis the silence of language where real communication exists. There are many wonderful things about being an animal doctor. Success is often measured by good surgical outcomes or medical manipulations that lead to recovery, but to me, getting a “thank you” spoken ever so softly to me in horse language is perhaps the most rewarding of all. Reprinted with permission from "Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere" by Bo Brock, available on

Emojis allow the internet world to see the gamut of facial expressions for humans, but what about horse expressions? Studies conducted in Italy, Germany, and England showed that horses can express pain through facial expressions. The Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) can allow for owners to detect their horse’s levels of discomfort.
Karina B Gleerup, Björn Forkman, Casper Lindegaard, and Pia H Andersen conducted the study in which six horses were exposed to pain in a controlled setting, once with an observer present, once without, and scored based on their reactions.
Symptoms of pain shown through a horse’s face may include any or all of the following, as listed in the study findings: “low and/or asymmetrical ears, an angled appearance of the eyes, a withdrawn or tense stare, mediolaterally dilated nostrils and tension of the lips, chin and certain facial muscles can be recognized in horses during induced acute pain.”
Facial changes or tightening within a horse can be a first indication that something is off.
“Mostly I look at their eyes and you can see tenseness or stress or concern, sometimes by the whiles of their eyes or wideness and opening of lids,” said Dr. Stephanie Stevens, DVM at Cheyenne River Animal Hospital in Edgemont, South Dakota. “Another thing I look at is the mouth and lips and the tightness there. Sometimes the flaring of nostrils can be obvious breathing or respiratory symptoms, but other times can be an indication of stress and pain.”
“The average person is probably not going to pick up on facial changes that horses go though. Sometimes the way their eyes look would be an indication,” said Joe B. Stricklin, DVM in Greeley, Colorado. “Horses have what I would consider a worried look. You can see some depressed or anxious looks through their eyes to indicate something going on, whether it’s pain or not, you can’t always tell.”
Though there is evidence of changes in horses’ expressions, using them as an indication for pain is not for everyone.
“I look at horse’s faces not necessarily for pain, but definitely if they’re irritated or unsure and hesitant, more or less if I can approach them,” said Erica Koller, DVM at Cheyenne River Animal Hospital. “They probably do show pain, but it’s not my tell-tale sign.”
Koller said she measures heart rate for a pain response.
As an equine chiropractor, Stevens uses signals from the horse to determine specific areas of pain.
“I watch their ears, especially when it comes to ribs. If horses have a rib that is hurting them and I touch it, you can really notice it in their facial muscles and ears,” she said. “When I do chiropractics, most of the time those are not painful; their ribs tend to be but the rest of spine manipulations aren’t. There are certain instances where I’m poking and prodding where I’m looking to see if the horse has a reactions in its face.”
Koller said a horse’s illness may affect their facial features.
“Horses may be definitely drooped in face and demeanor, sunken in eyes because of dehydration,” she said. “You can look at gum color and their eyes. They may flare their nostrils because they are stressed, but it could also be a natural reaction to the fact they can’t breathe or are in distressed mode.”
They may indicate pain in many ways.
A  change in a horse’s attitude or temperament is the first thing some notice. “It makes little difference what kind of pain it is, a change in attitude means the horse is usually hurting somewhere,” Stricklin said. “A horse that is normally nice and friendly when you go to catch it and it’s reluctant to have anything to do with you, or horses that don’t eat when they should be hungry is another sign of pain. When you go to saddle a horse up and all of a sudden they’re pinning their ears and going to bite at you, that’s a warning.”
If you notice your horse’s facial features display some or all of the symptoms listed as a pain indication, or you see your horse off in some other area, watch for differences in your horse to communicate to your veterinarian.
“Sometimes people will bring a horse to me and say, ‘The horse doesn’t like working to the right or isn’t picking up the correct lead.’ Any little thing that people can add is helpful,” Stricklin said. “Some other things might be the horse is flipping its head when putting the bit in its mouth or reluctant to put the bit in. These may be teeth issues, which are sometimes confused with lameness. We have to look at the whole horse. Most of the time the person thinks the horse is lame in one limb, but is lame in a different limb.”
Pain may be confused with bad behavior.
“Anytime you think that the horse is not right or not performing like he typically does, before you go to disciplining, give the horse the benefit of the doubt and make sure something isn’t hurting,” Stricklin said. “In less than 10 percent of the time do I check horses over and find nothing wrong with them at all. When those horses quit being the horse they’ve been, it’s usually something bothering them.”
Young horses who have bouts of behavioral inconsistencies are fairly common, Stricklin said, but older, well-trained horses are less likely to have behavior issues without them being connected to pain. Young horses may typically have issues with teeth or ovaries for fillies, so if bad behavior is lingering, Stricklin recommends they be checked out as well.
Deciding when to bring a horse in to see the vet can vary based on symptoms, but certain behaviors or reactions can be red flags.
“Whenever a horse does not eat or drink for more than 12 hours, bring it to the vet. Most of the time horses can’t miss a meal,” Koller said. “If they’re staying in the same spot or laying down for that amount of time, there’s definitely something more going on. When it comes to colic, which is generally the number one reason for a horse to be in pain, if they are down and rolling and you get them up and walk them and it proceeds for two to three hours, and walking doesn’t get that digestion moving, then they need to be brought in.”
“Any time you can isolate where the horse’s pain is and don’t have a good explanation for it, bring your horse in and have it diagnosed,” Stevens said. “If it has pain that you don’t have an explanation for but it’s persistent, then they should see a vet. Any symptoms you don’t understand, like maybe your horse broke out in a sweat, obviously those are indications of something else going on.”

Published in 2017 Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo® SDQHA Horse Sale & Hutchinson Stallion Row Catalog, produced by Tri-State Livestock News.

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