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Study Helps Horse Owners Recognize The Facial Expressions Of Pain

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90% of horses will be affected by lameness at some point. Experienced equestrians know the signs to watch for: a hitching gait; short, uneven stride; or hesitation during riding can all be tip-offs that your horse is in pain.

But what if there was a way for owners to catch subtle symptoms sooner, shortening the animals’ suffering and helping to prevent long-term damage?

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Animal scientists at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K. have been working on just such a system. They have developed an ethogram to help horse owners, trainers and vets identify signs of pain in equine facial expressions.

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Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the AHT understands that many people struggle with recognizing lameness based on gait alone, and some lameness is so subtle that only an expert eye can see it. The subtlety of the symptoms often lead to horses being labeled “naughty” or difficult to work with, when really they are crying out for help. The following signs of pain are often mistaken as behavioral:

 

This means that pain-related problems go unnoticed, the horse continues to work, and the problem gets progressively worse; sometimes to the point that the damage is too advanced to be resolved.

In the first phase of research, people from different backgrounds were asked to apply the ethogram to a selection of photographs of horses’ heads as they were ridden. With the ethogram as a guide, they were able to consistently identify different expressions in each horse, such as positions of the ears, changes in the eyes, and tightness in the muzzle.

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The results were encouraging enough that the researchers believe horse owners could preliably recognize different expressions in their horses’ faces with guidance from the ethogram. They next tested whether or not the ethogram could help distinguish between sound and lame horses.

Pain scores based on facial expressions were assigned to 519 photos of lame and healthy horses with significantly different results for the two sets. The facial markers showing the greatest difference between lame and sound horses included ears back, tipping the head, eyes partially or fully closed, tension around the eye, an intense stare, an open mouth with exposed teeth and being severely above the bit.

 

The research has shown that not only are facial expressions a valid way to assess pain in horses, they may help those who see the animals regularly and know their typical expressions to catch the symptoms of pain far sooner and seek veterinary attention.

The ethogram is similar to a body condition score chart, and the team is already working towards the development of a whole horse ethogram. In the following video, Dr Dyson explains the significance of the study.

 

H/T to AHT.org.UK

Featured Image via Facebook/University of Wisconsin – Madison

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