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.