Do you know if your horse is in pain?

The horses declined blankets in sunny weather but requested one in cold temperatures.

The horses declined blankets in sunny weather but requested one in cold temperatures.

Recent breakthroughs in horse communication indicate a better way for these animals to express their needs to humans. Because of the obvious language barrier, it’s difficult to understand when horses are uncomfortable or in pain. Owners, trainers and veterinarians make educated guesses based on the equine’s actions and responses to certain stimuli, but these still do not provide solid answers. Thankfully, research from the Norwegian Veterinary Institute shows horses can communicate with humans through symbols.

 

Horses use symbols to ask for blankets
Dr. Cecile Mejdell, lead researcher, and her team set out to discover if horses could attach different meanings to different symbols. While many studies concluded horses have the ability to respond to various cues, few have shown whether the animals can learn to give meaningful signals themselves. If so, the researchers theorized, symbols could become an effective tool for better understanding a horse’s needs and wishes.

The veterinarians decided to test their theory using rugs. According to BBC News, draping a horse with a blanket throughout the year is a common practice in Norway. Not all horse owners agree with the idea, however, and the researchers decided to see if they could get the animals’ input on the matter. To conduct their study, they selected 23 horses ranging in age from 3 to 16. The animals were trained to differentiate between different symbols and their consequences. A black, horizontal bar meant “put blanket on,” while a vertical bar indicated “take blanket off.” A blank space meant “no change.”

“The horses asked for blankets in weather that was cold, rainy or wet.”

Once the horse understood the differences between the symbols, the veterinarians tested the animals’ understanding of the symbols and their own thermal comfort. They draped horses in thick blankets until they were obviously hot and looked to see if they chose the vertical bar. On a separate day, they put the horses in cold temperatures with no blanket and waited for the animals to select the horizontal bar. After various routines to eliminate error and chance, the horses successfully asked for blankets in weather that was cold, rainy or wet and declined them when it was sunny. The researchers concluded the horses made their selections based on their own comfort and free will.

“Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent, but this shows that using the right methods they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can take choices that seem sensible to us even,” Mejdell told BBC News.

Pain in horses
This research concludes that, with the right training, horses can communicate discomfort. If taken further, horses might be able to tell humans when and where they feel pain. For now, all we have are the traditional cues such as a change in resting patterns, loss of appetite or reluctance to exercise. We also have context clues – for example, a horse that exhibits signs of pain after strenuous activity might simply be sore. In such instances, supplements like Finish Line’s EZ-Willow can ease discomfort. If there is a separate issue, however, supplements might not be enough. Thankfully, based on this research, our ability to diagnose horse pain and discomfort might be less guess work and more direct communication from the animals themselves.