Pain Related Issues Vs. Behavioral Issues In Horses

Pain and health issues vs. behavioral issues in your horse.


Knowing the difference between pain and health issues versus behavioral issues is essential to having a healthy, happy horse. Have you ever wondered whether your horse is dealing with pain or is having a behavioral problem? This article will discuss the differences between both, how to tell, and when to contact your vet or trainer.



Knowing the differences between a behavioral problem and a health issue causing pain in your horse is imperative to their health and performance. Many times, our horses will act out when they are in pain. However, it can be very challenging to tell whether your horse is in pain or developing a bad habit that you need to address. 


This article will outline the differences between each, some common issues that cause pain, and what may lead to behavioral problems, along with helping you come to a conclusion about what type of problem you may be dealing with. Please keep in mind that this article is in no way or form diagnosing any problems or meant to discredit veterinary recommendations. If you believe your horse may be suffering in any way. In that case, you need to consult your preferred veterinarian immediately to prevent long-term problems from occurring or reoccurring.  


Horses are not inherently mean creatures. Most of the time, when you deal with a horse that is genuinely sour or has aggressive tendencies, these issues have been “man-made.” This means that a horse has been allowed to act a certain way and then felt rewarded for whatever lousy behavior it may be exhibiting. 


There is a vast difference between a horse with a genuine behavioral issue and a horse dealing with a pain-related behavioral problem. They are entirely different and need to be treated as such. If your horse has recently started acting differently, then there is an excellent chance that they are dealing with pain somewhere in their body. If the horse is new to you, you will absolutely need to have them evaluated by a vet regardless of what you initially believe, as you have little or no prior history with the horse. If the horse is not new to you and you have had them for an extended period of time, then more than likely, the issue is going to be behavioral in nature. 


Moving forward, we will discuss each problem a bit further in-depth, figure out some common causes, and offer some solutions to each situation to get you steered onto the right path for you and your horse. 


Why health issues occur and the root problem

Health issues and pain can occur for a variety of reasons. Our horses are complex animals that perform various tasks, functions, and much more. Whether it be performance-related tasks or simply the natural homeostasis that takes place in a horse’s day-to-day life, much can be at play when it comes to the development of pain. Your horse will be at a greater risk of pain if they are a high-performance show horse or a senior horse. 


The most common issues amongst generally healthy horses are gastric ulcers, colic, soreness, and lameness or soundness issues. All of which can cause your horse great pain and stress. Many times, these problems go hand in hand with one another. Most of the time, gastric ulcers and colic are caused by tension in the horse’s digestive system due to daily stress, dietary changes, hauling, or improper diet. Even tasks that may seem routine to us, such as daily training and traveling for events or shows, can play a significant role in the formation of ulcers and other gastric stressors. Colic can also happen for unknown reasons, ingestion of sand, traveling, poor gut motility, traveling, or infections. 


Soreness, lameness, and soundness issues can happen due to training, injuries, stress, the horse’s natural conformation, age, arthritis, abscesses, and many other diseases and ailments. 


Our horses are not able to directly communicate with us via a language system, but when they are stressed or in pain, they have their ways of speaking to us. Sometimes, this involves acting out or acting aggressively. However, without paying close attention, we can take this differently and increase our disciplinary and training methods without realizing that the real problem lies within the horse dealing with tremendous pain. 


Signs of a horse in pain

Here is a shortlist of the most common signs to look for in a horse in distress or pain. Sometimes they are hard to pick out, and other times they will be pretty easy to see. According to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, common symptoms include:


  • Lameness or abnormal gait
  • Unusual posture
  • Shifting weight from one leg to another
  • Muscle tremors
  • Abnormal sweating
  • Lying down more than usual
  • Mood or temperament changes
  • Decreased appetite
  • Strange reactions to grooming, saddle or bit and bridle
  • Changes in feeding behavior
  • Grinding teeth and/or excessive drooling
  • Weight loss
  • Squinting or closed eyes
  • Biting or staring at a particular body region
  • Any evidence of injury


Additionally, you should also keep in mind that a horse in pain may also:


  • Kick
  • Bite
  • Act aggressively
  • Act lethargically
  • Have no gut sounds- generally concerning colic.
  • Hot hooves-generally concerning abscesses.


When dealing with a horse reacting out of pain, you must immediately stop riding or working them and seek vet care for your equine friend. However, diagnosing a problem usually takes a little time and patience. Depending on the situation, you may also be advised to use special supplementation, feeding schedules, farrier work, bodywork, acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic work, or more. Once you and your vet reach a diagnostic prognosis, you can then begin the rehabilitation process to get your horse back on track towards good health. 


Why behavioral issues occur

Some common behavioral issues you may run into with a horse or a horse in your care can range from biting, kicking, bucking, rearing, aggressiveness, horses that are in your space or run into or over you, and a horse being overly fresh. There are also a range of mental problems that can occur in a horse that stem from a place of fear, behavioral problems arising from an injury or displacement issue (i.e., spinal and muscular displacements)

These problems can occur due to congenital disabilities, poor breeding, inadequate training, and injuries. Each horse that has a problem will have a different story about why the issue in question is occurring.


Dealing with a horse with aggressive tendencies:

Generally, horses with aggressive or overbearing behavior are due to handler error at some point in their life. Whether it’s bucking, biting, rearing, flipping over, or whatever your issue may be. They have learned that if they act in a certain way, they will get put away, turned out, have the saddle taken off, or be able to run someone out of their stall. Every time this happens, the horse is basically “rewarded,” in a sense. This is because the pressure of whatever the handler was trying to do was taken away. 


For a practical example, a horse that kicks has learned that if they kick, they will stop having their feet picked up. Each time the handler tries to pick up that horse’s feet, they increase the intensity of the nasty behavioral action they have started. This leads to the handler either addressing the issue and fixing the problem or stepping back and releasing the applied pressure. Each time the applied pressure is released, the horse views this as a step towards dominating that individual or, even worse, people altogether. 


The best way to deal with these issues is with a lot of groundwork, dealing with the problem, and not releasing pressure (while maintaining your safety.) If you do not feel comfortable handling these issues, you need to find a qualified horse professional who can help you; otherwise, these problems will continue to escalate until the horse becomes potentially extremely dangerous. Bad behavior needs to be addressed immediately after you have ruled out the potential for any pain-related causes. Pain issues can manifest themselves as behavioral issues. 


Injuries that lead to dangerous and difficult behavior:

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can have a phenomenal horse that is generally well-mannered, gets injured, and entirely changes. For example, if a horse flips over backward and hurts its poll or throws something far out of alignment, it can create an injury-related behavioral problem. Even once the issue is addressed, and a solution is reached, your horse may (or may not) still be dealing with behavioral problems or even become dangerous. They do this for a couple reasons.


  • Permanent damage to their spinal cord, head, neck, hips, etc. Especially concerning falling or flipping accidents. 
  • The horse is scared and trying to protect itself. A lack of trust. 
  • The horse has lost their love of working and being used for whatever its purpose is. 


In these situations, it is best to be working in close relations with your vet and equine therapist(s) to help your horse fully recover. You may also need to work with a trainer to help with any ongoing behavioral issues and to help you learn how to work with your horse correctly. Understand and be prepared that the road to recovery may be a very long process depending on the problem that your horse is facing. If your horse was injured, it could be years before they are able to return back to their regular self. 


Telling the difference is not always an easy task. It is best to contact a professional for an accurate diagnosis and avoid any further damage that could result from a misdiagnosis. 


Questions to aid in the diagnostic process:

Here is a list of questions to help you decipher between general behavioral issues and health-related behavioral problems:


  • Is this behavior new? Has my horse acted like this for a long time? What is the time frame?
  • What is my horse doing exactly? (It is best to record and keep track of your horse’s behavior.)
  • How old is my horse?
  • What is their current diet?
  • Are they turned out? Are there any toxic plants in their pasture?
  • When were they floated, shod, and wormed last?
  • Has my horse acted this way before or after returning from the trainer? Did any incidents occur during the time they were in training? 
  • Do I turn my horses out with others? Have they been kicked recently? 


These are just a handful of helpful questions to conclude whether the behavior is new, has been around for a while, when it started, what your horse is doing, and how to fix the problem. A behavioral problem will generally be more accessible to fix than a pain-related problem, although pain related to arthritis or other similar issues can be easily managed with supplementation, diet, and injections performed by your vet to aid in your horse’s overall comfort. 


Your vet may also ask for a list of current supplements and treatments your horse is on. This will help them come to a more accurate conclusion. 



Thankfully, no matter the problem with your horse, there is a solution. Vets, trainers, and horse experts are usually very knowledgeable and come to a solution for your horse in a relatively quick manner. Suppose you have enough time with horses under your belt. In that case, you will likely be capable of solving quite a few health and behavioral-related issues. Still, if you are newer to horses, you will need to seek outside advice from individuals who know horses inside and out. Good luck with your horse, and if you have any questions regarding their safety and health, please feel free to contact us; we would be happy to provide as much support as possible. Keep in mind we are not practicing veterinarians or nutritionists but have many years of experience in the industry and have dealt with many problems over the years. 


Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next article!


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