The Art of Listening

EquiTeam’s coach Liz Daniels explores the art of listening to our horses and why it’s important.

In the mental health space lots of charities talk about the importance of asking twice and really listening, and I think that this has parallels with the work that we do with our horses.

As an industry we have progressed in both our understanding and education and as a result we are better equipped – but I still think that sometimes it is difficult to listen if we don’t even try.

Horses are naturally amazing stoic animals and tend to ‘keep on going’ until they physically, or mentally, can’t any more. This stems back from many years ago when it was survival of the fittest – if any signs of weakness were displayed they were eaten. Sounds a bit graphic – but it was true.

It’s one of the many reasons horses are amazing and wonderful creatures – but it is also one of the reasons that they can often get pushed beyond their limits.

Dr. Sue Dyson is someone who I particularly find fascinating. Having spent many years studying lameness and performance as a world renowned orthopaedic equine vet, Sue was convinced that horses were trying to tell us that they were sore, long before noticeable lameness became apparent.

Through a six-phase study, spanning three years, and over 400 horses, Dr. Sue Dyson and colleagues developed the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE), a tool that can reliably predict lameness before the condition worsens. This also proves that horses do indeed tell us when they are uncomfortable using various markers.

The question we asked was can we determine, by looking at facial expressions and other behaviours, whether the horse has musculoskeletal pain-2

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram is a list of 24 behaviours. Sue’s study showed that a horse who shows eight or more of the 24 behaviours listed in the RHpE is likely to have musculoskeletal pain.

The 24 behaviours are divided into three categories: facial markers, body markers, and gait markers.

Facial markers
  • The ears rotated back behind vertical or flat (both or one only) for five or more seconds, or repeatedly laying the ears flat
  • The eye lids closed or half closed for two to five seconds
  • Sclera (white of the eye) repeatedly exposed
  • An intense stare for five or more seconds
  • The mouth opening and shutting repeatedly with separation of teeth, for ten or more seconds
  • The tongue exposed, protruding or hanging out, and / or moving in and out
  • The bit pulled through the mouth on one side (left or right)
Body markers
  • Repeated changes of head position (up / down, but not in rhythm with trot)
  • Head tilted, repeated
  • Head in front of vertical (more than 30 degrees) for ten or more seconds
  • Head behind vertical (more than 10 degrees) for ten or more seconds
  • Head position changes regularly, tossed or twisted from side to side, corrected constantly
  • Tail clamped tightly to middle or held to one side
  • Tail swishing large movements: repeatedly up and down / side to side / circular; during transitions

Gait markers
  • A rushed gait (frequency of trot steps greater than 40 in 15 seconds); irregular rhythm in trot or canter; repeated changes of speed in trot or canter
  • Gait too slow (frequency of trot steps less than 35 in 15 seconds); passage-like trot
  • Hindlimbs do not follow tracks of forelimbs but deviated to left or right; on three tracks in trot or canter
  • Canter repeated strike off wrong leg; change of leg in front and / or behind (disunited)
  • Spontaneous changes of gait (e.g., breaks from canter to trot, or trot to canter)
  • Stumbles or trips repeatedly; repeated bilateral hindlimb toe drag
  • Sudden change of direction, against rider’s direction; spooking
  • Reluctant to move forward (has to be kicked, with or without verbal encouragement), stops spontaneously
  • Rearing (both forelimbs off the ground)
  • Bucking or kicking backwards (one or both hindlimbs)

How to check your own horse

Warm up as you would normally for five-ten minutes and then ask someone to video you in walk, trot, canter, through transitions, a figure of eight and on 10m circles in rising trot. It is also helpful to be video the horse moving in a straight line towards the camera and then away from the camera.

Once you have your footage watch back and check the list scoring one mark for each of the behaviours present. You might need to watch it multiple times and slowing the video down can be useful for some of the markers. If you are unsure then ask someone to do it with you.

The lower the score the less likelihood of any discomfort. A score of eight or more means that the horse is likely to have musculoskeletal pain.

It’s a great idea to repeat this once a month so that you can see any subtle changes.

Learning more

If you want to know more you can find out how to use the Ridden Horse Ethogram to Optimise Potential, Partnership and Performance in a book by Dr Sue Dyson and Sue Palmer MCSP here

To find out more about the study go to:

If you find that your horse is scoring eight or more then of course there can be multiple reasons for this – but always seek professional advice.  

If you loved reading, please feel free to share

Don’t forget to join us and our friendly community of like minded people here.