don’t You Wish Horses Could Talk’

As a trainer, you’re always studying equine behavior. So the most common thing you think or say to yourself is, ?I wish these horses could just talk!?

that’s why it was why I keenly read recently a about a study undertaken by German, Italian and British researchers to quantify horse facial expressions in order to determine degrees of pain. they’re calling their new tool the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS), and the researchers hope that its application will help guide trainers, owners and veterinarians in the determination of equine pain and its care. (I haven’t read the actual study, because the only copy I could find was in German, and that wasn?t helpful.)

I was interested in this study because we spend countless hours trying to discern the meaning of every change in behavior, of an odd twitch of a tail or ear, looking for the Rosetta stone of movement, sound and behavior. And when something about them changes, you start running down the laundry list of possibilities.

?Do they hurt’? If yes, is it a new injury’ An old injury’ An issue with tack fit’ With their teeth’ With their feet or shoeing’ Is it curable’ Is it progressive’ If so, how fast’

?Is it a training issue’? If yes, then, is it a hole in their basics’ A question they don’t understand’ A mismatch between horse and rider’ A mismatch between horse and job’

?Is it a lifestyle issue’? Do they need more turn-out’ Less turn-out’ A different stall’ A different neighbor or pasture mate’ More schooling’ More hacking’ Different feed’ Some kind of supplement’ Removal of a supplement’

Some days, you want to hand them a set of semaphore flags and hope to get a clue. There are days when you gaze deeply in to their eyes and want to scream, ?WHAT’!’! WHAT IS WRONG’!’!’! Can you just give me a CLUE’!’!’? And then you take a deep breath and hope that none of your clients saw that.

The study grew out of an issue that isn?t directly applicable to our U.S. experience, which is the huge number of equines (approximately 240,000) castrated in the European Union who do not receive any pain medication in conjunction with the procedure. In fact, the researchers say that only 39.6% of horses castrated receive any sort of analgesic?those are brave veterinarians! And tough horses.

They conducted the study by castrating 46 males, with one group receiving Banamine prior to the procedure and one group receiving it both before surgery and six hours after surgery. High-definition video of the horses? faces were then taken for five days after their procedures, and then they analyzed the footage.

Things which were delineated as being expressions of pain in horses included: stiffly backward ears, orbital tightening, tension visible above the eyes, strained chewing muscles, mouth strained with pronounced chin, strained nostrils, and what is described as ?flattening of the profile,? which (I’ll be honest) I don’t really understand.

While I applaud this research?and any research that can help us understand the needs of our equine charges?I must admit that my first thought is that their analysis is just a bit too touchy-feely, a bit too subjective, and it’s probably not foolproof enough to make a huge change in the life of your average horse day to day.

The main issue, I think, is the difference in the pain tolerances of individual horses, which is difficult to address in any sort of study. If you?ve ever been around a barn full of horses, you know the ones who get the tiniest of scratches and become instantly three-legged lame and blow up like blimps, and you also know the ones that have to have a compound fracture before they?ll limp even slightly. We call them ?drama queens? and ?stoics.? So while knowing the signs of pain is great, knowing your horse and the subtleties of his or her particular behavior is even better.

The man we really need to help us is Dr. Doolittle, but He’s been retired for a long time now.

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