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On behaviour training and pain

Now here is a tricky subject and one that I have and still do spend countless hours discussing and thinking about.

Unfortunately horses only have two ways to express pain or discomfort, one is to be lame or in some sort of obvious discomfort, the other is by behaviour and this can range on a scale from pinning his ears back to more extreme things like bucking or rearing.

Added to this, being a prey animal, horses have been designed by nature to mask pain so they don’t get picked out for special attention by a predator! Some are real stalwarts and can virtually have a leg falling off before they look like they’re in pain, some are real pansies and are holding their leg in the air from a fly bite.

So, whenever behavioural issues come up I believe it is our duty to ask the question, could this be pain related? This question needs to be thoroughly explored in terms of saddle fit, dental checks and consultation with professionals such as the vet, farrier and physical therapist (physio, chiropractor, osteopath) before embarking on any kind of re-training.

I have had a number of situations where I’ve been called out for a problem only to find a horse that is uncomfortable. One that always sticks in my mind was being called out to a mounting problem, only to find a horse in discomfort, some osteopath treatments and a saddle adjustment later and the mounting problem was gone - we never got to mounting training!

Another example being a horse that was napping and didn’t want to go forward turned out to have ulcers.

In all these cases, if we had embarked on training, however kind the methods applied, we would have been asking this horse to override his pain/discomfort and do something anyway. So in the first instance, especially if the behaviour is new, please ask yourself.. Could it be pain?

More recently there have been a number of studies carried out to examine the relationship between a horses facial expressions and pain. See for more information on this.

At this point it is probably worth noting that I have also seen people be so convinced that the horse is in pain and spend years looking for it, only to find that they have a behavioural problem that could have easily been solved with a little training.

So, how do you know? And what do you do about it? My personal opinion is to rule out pain first, a thorough check by trusted professionals should be the first port of call when issues come up. I think this is only fair on the horse. If you have a clean bill of health, saddle and bridle fit have been ruled out and you still have an issue, you can then more comfortably start treating the problem as a training issue.

If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on


Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 10 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.

Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.

See or email for more details.

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