Interpreting Your Horse’s Body Language
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.
His posture can tell the observant horseman at a glance whether or not all is well. The animal’s general bearing, leg position, head, neck and tail carriage can be indicators of something amiss. If the horse is standing with his head down and dull, rather than bright and alert, the horseman should be immediately suspicious. If a horse is not feeling well, or is experiencing pain, he is often less perky than usual, less aware of what is going on around him. He is tuned inward instead, concentrating on his own misery. It would be wise to take his temperature; his dullness may be an indication of fever.
He won’t necessarily have fast respiration rate with a fever; he may just seem a bit dull. If he isn’t quite himself, take his temperature. While you are at it, check his pulse and respiration rates. An elevated pulse can be a sign of pain. If you decide that the horse’s condition warrants a call to your veterinarian, you can tell the vet about your horse’s vital signs and give the information needed – so the vet can be better able to know whether or not a more thorough examination and diagnosis are necessary.
Every horseman knows about colic signs – pawing, rolling, sweating, and so on. But mild abdominal pain may be harder to detect, unless you know your horse well and have a feel for when he isn’t quite himself. A horse with mild abdominal pain may be just a little dull, or slightly restless, or off his feed. He may get up and down more than usual, or spend too much time lying down. He may lie with his nose tucked around toward his belly or flank.
Or he may stand off in a corner away from the herd, or stand with a slightly abnormal posture. His front legs may be stretched a bit forward and his hind legs back, trying to ease discomfort in his abdomen. If he is acting strange or looking dull, check his vital signs and abdominal sounds. Use a stethoscope if you have one, or even just your ear pressed to his side, to see if there are any gut sounds. Keep him under observation for awhile. If he has a mild colic, it could worsen, depending on what is causing it.
How the horse is standing—the position of his legs, and overall body stance—can give clues to other problems as well. If he’s standing with one front leg in front of the other (pointing), it usually means he is trying to relieve pain in that leg by not bearing much weight on it. It may mean he has bruised the heel of that foot, or he may have a more serious injury to the deep flexor tendon, flexor muscles or related ligaments. Pointing can also be indicative of navicular disease. Or the horse may be trying to ease the discomfort of a strained biceps muscle, bruised shoulder or injured elbow. If a check of his leg (feeling for heat and swelling, checking his heel for soreness with hoof testers) does not reveal the cause, have your vet do a more complete examination.
Even more serious injury can be suspected if the horse is standing three-legged, not putting any weight at all on a front leg. If the pain is temporary and he soon walks normally again, he probably just banged the leg during playful antics, or was kicked by a pasturemate, or landed wrong while running and bucking. But if he continues to be three-legged, you should get professional help to diagnose and treat the problem. He may have a foot abscess, a strained or sprained fetlock joint, nerve or muscle injury, or even a fracture. A close examination of foot and leg can give some clues, if you check for heat and swelling, exaggerated pulse, punctures or embedded foreign objects in the hoof, or hoof tenderness (with a hoof tester).
Hind legs are generally not injured as frequently as fronts, since they carry less weight, but accidents sometimes happen. A horse standing three-legged, resting a hind foot, is usually nothing to worry about, but might be an indication of pain and trouble. If your trusty steed seems abnormal in his hind leg resting position, check the foot and leg more closely and make him move a bit, to see if he favors the leg while walking.
If he’s standing with one hip dropped and hind leg dangling, or the fetlock joint and pastern knuckled under (the front of the pastern resting on the ground, bottom of hoof pointed upward behind him), suspect a serious injury. A few horses rest a hind foot this way, but if yours generally does not, you’d better check it out. The odd hind leg stance could mean a broken leg or a ruptured ligament or muscle high in the leg. If he’s unwilling to move, or his leg will bear no weight, do not try to make him move, since this could make his problem worse. Get prompt veterinary help.
Another instance in which a horse will be reluctant to move is when his major muscles (especially in the hindquarters) “tie up.” Due to painful muscle cramping, he will stand with hind legs riding, often behind their normal position, and he’ll generally paw the ground with his front feet, due to pain and frustration. He’ll probably break out in a sweat, especially around the flanks.
This problem generally occurs early in a workout when the horse is being ridden, or right after a ride (most cases in horses fed high-energy feeds), but can also occur any time a horse over-exerts. You might come upon him standing this way after he has been running and bucking in mud or snow, or racing around with his pasturemates. His pain and anxiety might be mistaken for colic, but the astute horseman can often tell the difference by the horse’s stance, actions and his reluctance to budge from the spot. Do not try to move him. Exertion will only make his problem worse. Your vet can give him medication to help relieve the condition.
If you find a horse standing with front legs too far back and hind legs farther forward than usual (front and hind end bunched together), this is generally a sign that his body hurts. He may be standing this way to try to relieve pain in his back. Or he may have discomfort in his chest. A dull horse standing “camped under” like this could be seriously ill.
If he seems normal in all other aspects (alert, eating and drinking, with his usual attitude about everything) he may just have a simple strain or bruise causing him pain. But if he is dull, sweating, trembling, unwilling to move, staggery or in any way acting strangely, you’d better have professional diagnosis. The horse may have a seriously injured back, severe gut problems, or a respiratory condition such as pleuritis (inflammation of the chest lining and lung covering, which would be accompanied by fever, fluids in the chest cavity and painful breathing).
A horse standing with his weight shifted back onto his hind legs, trying to take the weight off his front feet, is giving a clue that bearing weight on this front legs is painful. This could mean founder, though sometimes a horse with neck pain will also stand like this. Founder should be your immediate suspicion, and you should check his feet for heat or a pounding pulse. See if he will move. If he tries to carry most of his weight on his hind feet and is very reluctant to move or turn to the side, you are probably dealing with founder and great pain in his feet.
A horse standing with his back humped up and stomach muscles tense is exhibiting signs of severe body pain (injured back or ribs, chest pain or peritonitis, or serious gut pain). He will be reluctant to move, since any movement hurts. He needs immediate medical attention.
The horseman must be alert to any changes in his animals’ normal behavior. Often a horse acting “funny” can be the first hint that something is seriously wrong. If he is showing unusual alarm or alertness, agitation, personality change, or is dull and preoccupied, droopy and unresponsive, disoriented or abnormally aggressive, take heed. Behavior and posture changes may signal an insignificant or temporary problem, or could be the first signs of serious injury or illness such as rabies, encephalomyelitis or tetanus. If a horse is sweating, trembling, straining to urinate or defecate, drooling, grunting, wheezing, panting or showing any other obvious or alarming changes, this should warrant a quick call to your vet. More subtle changes may be nothing serious, but they could be early warning signs of a major problem.
The alert horseman who knows his animals well, can be aware of signals the horse is giving about how he feels, and can learn to differentiate between minor and major problems. A subtle signal detected early by the horseman, can often make the difference in the outcome of a serious condition.
Obvious Signs of Trouble
- Rolling or pawing
- Sweating when at rest (unless weather is very hot)
- Fast respiration when at rest
- Not eating at mealtime
- Spending too much time lying down
- Lying in an abnormal position
- Unusual posture or stretching (legs bunched under the body, or stretched out) or trying to carry most of the weight on the hind legs
- Refusing to put weight on a foot
- Reluctance to move when you ask him to
- Changes in usual personality or behavior