Pain is something that all horses deal with at some point in their lives. Horses can experience pain for many different reasons, including injury, illness, or a result of surgery.

For example, castration is the most common surgical procedure performed on horses and is associated with significant post-operative pain.

Acute colic is another common painful experience for horses. [3] Pain is also commonly associated with degenerative joint disease, laminitis, gastric ulcers, and hoof issues.

Unlike humans, horses don’t always show it when they are experiencing pain, or they may only display subtle signs of discomfort. This is because, as prey animals, they have evolved to hide signs of pain and weakness in the presence of predators. [2]

As horse owners, we want to know how to alleviate pain for our horses. Pain management strategies will be different for every horse, depending on what’s causing the pain, the severity and duration of the pain, as well as the horse’s intended work.

Understanding Pain in Horses

While we may think of pain as bad, pain is an important feedback mechanism to help horses survive in their environment.

A basic bodily sensation brought about by noxious (harmful) stimulus, pain is associated with actual or potential tissue damage or nerve injury. Pain is a signal received by nerve endings and can be viewed as an internal warning system. [1]

Pain needs to be proactively managed. Anxiety and stress can enhance pain perception in horses and vice versa. [4]

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Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Pain

When pain serves a purpose – such as to protect an injured area or to promote healing and recovery – it is referred to as adaptive pain. [4]

Horses can also experience pain due to necessary veterinary interventions such as surgery. Navicular syndrome, laminitis, and osteoarthritis can cause chronic (long-term) pain.

Both surgery and chronic, painful conditions lead to maladaptive pain. This form of pain is dysfunctional: it neither protects nor supports the healing and repair of bodily tissues. [4]

The goal of pain management is to eliminate maladaptive pain for our horses while keeping the adaptive component. It is important for veterinarians and horse owners to recognize the differences between adaptive and maladaptive aspects of pain. [4]

Classifying Pain

Traditionally, pain in horses is classified according to the following factors:

  • Duration: acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term)
  • Anatomic location: superficial, deep, visceral (related to the internal organs), or musculoskeletal
  • Quality: dull, sharp, burning, stabbing, throbbing, persistent or recurrent
  • Intensity: mild, moderate, severe, excruciating, crippling