The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

Strengthening the Hindquarters

Last week I was thrown into crisis mode. It may have been a slight over reaction, but I was very concerned. On Thursday I decided that Otis could do with a visit from his McTimoney chiropractor as I felt he was slightly underperforming and I wanted to ensure there was no underlying reason. So I booked a visit for the middle of this week.

Unfortunately on Friday morning I rode Otis up the road to have a dressage lesson. On giving him a quick trot up the lane to see how he felt I was alerted to the fact his trot felt uneven. Not lame, but the left diagonal felt better than the right. I came back to walk and continued walking to see if he needed a bit more loosening up. With my trainer I said that he felt a bit strange and that we`d been struggling with canter work (which was one of the reasons I thought he needed an MOT) she noticed that in walk he kept having a slight mis-step. He didn`t lose his hindquarters, but the right hind didn`t step through as much. It was every fifth or so step so all in all a bit weird. I trotted for her to see, and he was reluctant to go forwards and not using his right hind so much.

Obviously we abandoned the lesson, and my trainer comforted me that it wasn`t a lameness as such, and you only notice if you know him, so the best thing was to get his back looked at. On my way home I rang the chiropractor to see if she could fit him any earlier than Wednesday. I didn`t want to prolong any pain.

Thankfully, she had a space at Saturday lunchtime, so I organised myself to be free. As she used to be a vet, she planned to watch him on the lunge and do a flexion test in order to make sure there wasn`t a root problem which had caused a back problem. On the lunge the left rein was slightly off, but again not enough to be classified as a lameness. And you had to look closely to see it. The right rein was marginally better but the chiropractor could see a smaller action of his right hind. The left flexion test was brilliant, he trotted up sound, but the right flexion test had a slight influence on his action for the first two strides. She also checked his suspensory ligaments, which were fine.

Back in the stable Otis was stood up square, and you could see his left hip was dropped and rotated back slightly, which was in accordance to the swing of his quarters in walk. The right side was swinging nicely, but the left side looked like it was hitting something as it went up. Otis was straightened up and then the chiropractor looked at his overall muscle tone. Last time she visited his loins were a bit sore, just at the back of the saddle, but these were fine now. However, his gluteals over his croup were very tense. Pressing near his sacroiliac caused a flickering of muscles over his hips. So we checked out his sacroiliac, which was even and flexible, with no adverse reaction from him. The chiropractor massaged the knots out of the gluteals until they ceased flickering. By the end he seemed very relaxed and happy, which was great.

I was instructed to give him a couple of days rest and then an easy week of hacking and light work. With baited breath I mounted on Tuesday to take Otis for a walking hack. We stuck to the roads and went for about half an hour. We met a car on one lane and I had to trot to meet them at the meeting place. Otis felt fantastic! Springy and really pushing from his hindquarters, lifting over his back and ears pricked. I was so pleased!

We repeated the walking hack on Wednesday and afterwards I went into the school to trot on both reins and feel how he was on a curve. It was negligible, but as I changed the rein onto the right rein he felt slightly different, and my friend who was watching thought it seemed like his right hind was fractionally weaker than the left. I could barely feel it on the change of diagonal.

Thursday was another hack with a friend, in which we walked up a nice hill to get the horses using their quarters. We had a steady canter in a straight line and again Otis felt great.

Today however, I went straight into the school and after a bit of walking and stretching I asked for trot, and noticed that he felt different on the right diagonal than the left. It wasn`t as noticeable as last week, but still there. I brought him back to walk and did some more stretching and circling, before trying trot again. It was better, so I trotted on both reins for a few minutes, riding the odd half circle and then after about five minutes he felt much more even and back to his usual self. He was still using his hindquarters, and lifting his back, which was very nice to feel. I did a little bit of shoulder in and leg yielding in walk to try and get his hindquarters a bit more engaged.

I think the dropped pelvis was a longer term issue that I just need to monitor, but the muscles spasms were more concerning. I can`t have the vet yet as they won`t see a lameness, so I think I`m going to take the approach of trying to strengthen his right hind, as suggested by the chiropractor to see if he gets better or worse. I`ve been researching exercises to try, and the obvious ones are shoulder in and leg yield as the inside hind has to step under and across to take more weight. Otis is already established in them, but I`ll take it back to walk for the time being, and incorporate them into my hacks. Other exercises I can do is walking over poles. and raised poles, as this encourages him to flex the joints a bit more. Again, he knows the drill but I will start him in walk over the next week, perhaps building the exercises up to trot if he feels better. In the meantime I can hack him and use hillwork to help strengthen his quarters.

Fingers crossed by next week he`ll be feeling a lot stronger and better! If anyone has any other suggestions for exercises then please let me know!