About the Equine Pain face scale

Published on 1 October 2023 at 15:06


Last week with my post about ‘should equestrian sport be abolished? Which you can find here: Should equestrian sports be abolished?

Many people supported the information offered in my blog. As expected though, there were also a number of people very angry. There are always people who, when thinking of abuse of animals in general and horses in particular, imagine only things such as heavy beating, starvation etc. and to them professional competition horses ‘live like kings and queens’ and have a better situation going than many a poor human on Earth. I decided therefore to explain about the more subtle signs of discomfort and pain in horses. Science can be really great and my favourite science is the research on signs of pain in horses which I also explain a lot about in my book, which you can find here: Dressage in hand - what horses want you to know



Horses are prey animals and prey animals do not want predators to see obvious weakness within them. For predators, chasing big preys such as horses is a high-risk operation, they risk injury, as large preys can defend themselves up to a point, but they also literally run the risk of running out of energy to chase another prey, when the operation fails. Therefore, they will only attempt to catch large prey if they access the situation as the odds being more in their favour; for a chance to a higher success rate, so to speak. One of these factors is a large prey that shows signs of weakness, in other words, pain. Predators can better spot a limp in any prey better than most humans can. We can conclude therefore that over millions of years, the horses that were able to hide pain and discomfort best, were the ones that survived most and therefore their offspring characterized the equine population. Even though thousands of years of breeding by humans, this still has not changed this core characteristic of the prey animal horse. Even within humans pain often goes unnoticed if a human chooses to hide it. Many chronic pain sufferers, such as myself can testify to that. Now here we have a different species with a totally different way of communicating that has mastered the art of hiding pain far beyond what any human can.

(Maybe except for some monks that burn themselves to death without ever changing their silent lotus position, as a protest for the Vietnam war, we all know the photo.).



Horses can suffer enormous amount of pain without showing any obvious signs or sounds that they are in pain. Just because people whip them, and they do not utter a sound or hardly react does not mean that it does not hurt them. Imagine of you were to do the same to a dog or cat, they would most probably scream out in pain. But horses don’t and as we humans are programmed to ‘ screaming is pain’ and ‘silence is no pain’, we somehow don’t seem to stop and think if our horses are in pain when we pull the bit or noseband, when we jam in the spurs or whip the horses on their chest or butt. Many of you will say: “ But I never do that” and I believe you, but alas, many other people still do and as I was told the other day: “Naughty ponies need to be whipped and if I do not do that, I obviously know nothing about horses and I am just an armchair expert.” Yes, these are the things I get repeatedly from some riders. Also, “It won’t kill them and look how they treat each other in nature.” And more of these deflecting one liners that are supposed to make it normal to abuse an innocent animal.

Then I haven’t gotten into the fact that science has proven that horses have more sensitive skin and more nerve endings in the skin… than humans.


Let that sink in please.


People will attack me over this again, but I am sorry (or actually not), I will not back off about this. If you would not do it to yourself, your kids or your dog or cat, do not do it to your horses. And no, I am not talking about when you need to defend yourself from a horse attacking you (when does that ever happen to people not working with rehab horses?), because that is a completely different thing all together, so stop bringing that up please.



Very high demand is placed on competition horses and in all fairness, it is never good enough, because even when they go beyond all the high scores, they have to top that next time. In spite of these high demands, specie appropriate basic needs are often not even met. Horses might live like kings, but maybe if these kings had a choice, they would choose a completely different life, always outside with their friends, eating safe grass or roughage all day every day and have their feet naked on mother earth. That does not mean they still would not like to do a job with humans, though. Many horses really enjoy that. I am therefore, not against ‘using’ horses for training and riding, as I do that myself. I just think we owe it to the horses, after all they’ve done for humanity, to make this as pleasant and healthy as possible, by working based on their nature, their biomechanics and from a positive reinforcement viewpoint.


Reward what you want, rather than punish what you do not want.


Let horses also have a say. Let them also say ‘no’ once in a while, because they always have good reason, from their equine perspective. Often times they are only protecting their body. It could be something as simple as having a headache that day, but it could also be something serious that the caregivers are not yet aware of.


Within (professional) competition, this is often difficult, of not impossible, is what competition riders tell me themselves over and over. Horses are too young when started and too much is demanded of them to early. Because time is money. Specie appropriate living makes competing apparently more difficult etc etc. When, however, an individual has to live and perform this way, discomfort will at some point arise, but also health issues that will at some point cause pain. The problem is, horses hide pain, as explained. Therefore, international researchers came up with the EQUINE PAIN FACE SCALE, which can help you determine whether your horse is in pain. See the image I drew after a competition horse in his stable based on the scientific pain face scale.



Yes, during sporting activities, horses just as human athletes will show all kinds of weird faces that often look like pain, but it is a mixture of concentration and huge effort. Though when a horse is just walking or trotting, or in his stable, there should be no reason for the horse to show the pain face. Alas, I see it a lot, also with international competition horses. I would like you all to spread the word and see if you can spot the ‘pain face’.


Readers from all over the world have messaged me that they were unaware of this and had to find out that their horses showed the pain face, which led to examining what the source of the pain was. They thanked me for writing about it in my book. Therefore, I found it prudent, in light of current events concerning the scrutiny of equine welfare in sports, to send this message once more into the world.


I hope many of you will help me once again to spread it, to which I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

If you have a certain subject, you want me to expend on, post it  underneath this post or send me an email at dressageinhand@gmail.com


For the love of Horses,




© All rights reserved Josepha Guillaume - Dressage in Hand

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