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.

The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

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.

“Maybe it’s Maybelline”

My friend’s horse has always had a mane to be proud of. It’s very long, full of volume and in great condition. Her owner is very proud of it.

Was very proud of it.

Above, is one of Rose Lewis’s fantastic black background shots of this pony and her mane, which hangs below her elbows. I’ll wait while you go and check where the elbow is on a horse.

If you already know this, then while we’re waiting, have a look at Rose’s website – www.daydreamequineart.co.uk/ – there are lots of famous faces in her portfolio, as well as yours truly. But I don’t think I qualify for the famous faces category.

Anyway, back to the purpose of my post.

This pony’s behaviour has changed recently and I became obvious that she was uncomfortable in her back. My friend started investigating the saddle and booked her in with the physio.

The physio found quite a lot of tender spots, so gave her a good massage and prescribed rest and light, unridden exercise. Last week was her second appointment, and the physio made a horrifying suggestion.

“Why don’t you pull her mane?”

Once my friend had picked herself up off the floor, the physio explained further. The little mare has a lot of tension in her epaxial muscles (the muscles that stabilise the neck), particularly on the right. The physio thought that whilst the quantity and weight of mane didn’t necessarily cause the hypertonicity, it will hinder her recovery.

If you think about when you have your hair cut significantly, like when I had eight inches off in the summer, you can feel the weight difference. If you also have thick hair and get it layered or thinned, then you feel inches taller without the weight of your hair. Likewise, if you have your long hair tied up in a high ponytail (think Ariana Grande) you invariably get a headache after a period of time.

After some counciling, my friend set to work. She started by thinning it before taking out the length, leaving a huge pile of hair on the ground. The mare looks like a completely different pony! The below photo is after the first session, it will be neatened over this week, but you can see the he difference!

Hopefully the physio finds less hypertonicity in the neck and front of shoulder muscles on her next visit. I found it fascinating, because a long, thick mane causing muscular problems, had never occurred to me. In the wild manes wouldn’t grow as long and thick as you often see because they’d be pulled out on brambles or rubbed off on gravelly ground when they roll.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has come across physiological problems associated with voluminous manes, or even with shorter manes that are regularly plaited for competitions. I’m not going to tell all my clients with long manes to chop them off, but I will definitely be more open to reducing it if we find soreness or asymmetry in their neck.

Rider Biomechanics Workshop 

A few weeks ago I attended a Rider Biomechanics evening, as ever eager to learn a bit more about riding posture and how to help to improve my riders.

It was organised by my Pilates teacher, and it ties in very closely to Pilates, which I advocate everyone to do – even to just improve your proprioception. 

Anyway, we had a short lecture at the beginning about how the skeleton and muscles work, with Harry The Skeleton to demonstrate. A lot of is it basic biology, but it’s good to revise the remind ourselves that in order to turn to the left we need to use our neck, shoulders, upper and lower back, and pelvis, and as one body part moves another will follow. Then we were shown how by sitting correctly on our seat bones we can be in balance, thus minimising the effort involved in keeping ourselves there. This was cleverly demonstrated by balancing the skeleton on a saddle that was perched on a peanut gym ball … it stayed there! 

Then we discussed core muscles, as the deep muscles which are in between and around the vertebrae before getting out the gym balls. Gym balls are useful for us riders because the slight wobble of them mimicks the movement of the horse, thus meaning our core muscles learn to stabilise us better for ridden work. On the gym balls we did some balance exercises which were far harder than they looked! I won’t go into all the exercises, but if you ever get the opportunity to use one, have a go! My muscles were aching by the end. 

One thing I found contradictory was where I should be looking. When we do balance exercises in Pilates we’re told to look into the middle distance, and by having a soft focus I’m usually fairly successful in the exercises. However, whilst balancing on the balls we were told not to look at one thing, but to keep our eyes moving because in real life you can’t focus on just one object. Which proved too difficult for me. But have you ever been concentrating so much on doing something you don’t see or take in your environment? I do that all the time. So perhaps I need to use my soft focus until I grasp the exercise and can do it easily, and then try roving my eyes around.


With our balance thoroughly tested on the gym balls we had a go on some wobble boards. This was good fun because we had to find our balance whilst throwing and catching a gym ball. Wobble boards look easier than they actually are. Can you remember those toys that looked like a planet and you had to balance on them? It’s like those!


Anyway, the most interesting part of the clinic for me was when we had a go on the FlexChair. Now it wasn’t quite what I was expecting: I thought it would show how level you sat, your posture and weight distribution. What it does, however, is improve your control over your body weight, increases the suppleness of your core muscles and  flexibility of your back.

The premise is that the more control you have over your core muscles the easier it is to balance, and the more efficiently you’ll maintain your posture because if you have a flexibility range of 1-10 then holding your body in position 5, central, is far easier than if you had a range of 3-7.


There’s only one flexchair in the country I think, or at least there’s very few, and it’s an adjustable stool, contoured to get you sitting in the middle. You adjust it so your feet are flat on the floor and then turn your attention to the screen in front of you. The screen shows a white dot in the middle and tilting your seat and shifting your weight moved this dot around.

Firstly, we had to move the dot vertically, which involves tilting the seat and lower back forward and backward. It turns out I’m quite stiff there. I used to have a lot of problems with my lower back but I haven’t had problems for years and I think it’s because my back muscles are very strong so hold me in place. Once I’d got the hang of tilting my pelvis to aid the flexing of my lower back it did get better.

Then we had to move the dot left and right, which focuses your attention on the pressure on your seat bones. This one, I found much easier. Then of course there were exercises which developed this, such as having to move the dot around a figure of eight, or diagonal lines, or whatever configuration you can think of. 

It was definitely an interesting exercise, and it was fascinating how as everyone concentrated they developed a flaw to their position, like lifting a heel or clenching a fist. Which would mean a lost stirrup or heavy rein aid when riding. After all, we all have go-to positions that we adopt when scared or highly focused.

The one thing I came away with was that I need to work harder at the shoulder bridge exercise in Pilates to improve the forward-backward flexibility of my lumbar spine. It was an interesting evening, and I think all riders would benefit from trying the exercises, increasing their proprioception and seeing any asymmetry in their ability on the FlexChair, which will have a direct impact on their horse’s way of going.