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Pain Related Poor Performance in Horses

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

My horse isn’t quite right. He's not lame, but he's just not quite right.

How many times have you heard this as a conversation amongst rider and owners?

Dr Sue Dyson Pain related poor performance in horses leading a horse walk up assessment gait analysis

When your horse isn’t quite performing as you would like, it can often leave you questioning your training, your tack, feeding and your day-to-day management routine to try and find the reason for his drop in performance. In this situation, it can be all too easy to overlook mild, multi-limb lameness and mild pain-related issues but for the welfare of the horse it’s essential to be able to identify when this is the problem.

horse assessment lameness dr sue dyson

Dr Sue Dyson is a vet who specialises in lameness diagnosis, and poor performance in horses – and she believes that a fundamental skill we should all have is the ability to recognise when issues in your horse’s performance are pain related.

Sue’s focus throughout her career has been to help horses reach their athletic potential whatever their level. She has published more than 330 papers in peer reviewed journals concerning lameness and diagnostic imaging.

Sue has developed a straightforward system for assessing horse movement and comfort and in our online seminar, Recognising Pain-Related Poor Performance that took place on Saturday 26 November 2022, she explained how to use this system and give you the confidence to recognise pain related poor performance in horses.

Sue is a well-known figure in the horse world for her veterinary research but she’s also pretty good rider and trainer of horses too producing a number of horses in eventing and showjumping that went on to perform at the top of their sport including the Olympics.

dr sue dyson riding eventing horse sport

Her love of horses started at an early age and her motivation was to train ponies to be the best they could. Sue admits to being a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to training and working with horses but doing it in a nice way – working with the horse to form a partnership.

“I was very lucky, my mother was very supportive when I was younger even though she wasn’t really a horse person herself,” explains Sue. “I would buy ponies, produce them and sell them for more money, which enabled me to buy my next project and progress up the ranks. I competed at JA level showjumping and at The Pony Club Championships.”

Naughty or in pain?

We’ve probably all encountered or owned a so-called naughty horse. During the seminar Recognising Pain-Related Poor Performance Sue will be presenting three-hour long presentations. As well as passing on lots of tips, there will be lots of opportunities to ask questions and interact during the day.

One of the talks will be discussing how horses adapt their behaviour when they are in musculoskeletal pain.

Pain can often lead to bad behaviour but so can many other factors. For example, a horse that bucks and learns that it gets a release of pressure when the rider falls off can quickly learn that this type of behaviour gets the desired release.

But how can you tell if a horse that bucks or rears is pain related or if it's his training, tack or something else?

Dr sue dyson equine vet pain vs behaviour

Sue answers “As a general rule if there's just one behaviour and the horse is otherwise compliant, willing, looks happy, ears forward and doesn't swish its tail repeatedly – then the behaviour is probably related to a training problem, or it’s a learned behaviour and the horse knows that it can stop work by not doing what you want to do.

“If there are multiple behaviours such as rearing combined with spooking, unwillingness to go forwards freely, constantly swishing the tail, putting his ears back, opening his mouth, then it's much more likely that there’s an underlying pain related problem.”

Getting the right help

If you feel your horse isn’t right, it’s important to have the issue investigated by a suitable expert and this may not be your usual equine vet. For example, if you’re an athlete with a performance related problem, you would seek the advice of a specialist sports medicine person, or a physiotherapist but you probably wouldn't go to your local GP.

“The same applies for the horse, if you believe there may be an underlying pain related problem, I think the horse has to be investigated by somebody who has the appropriate skills to do that,” stresses Sue. “Somebody who understands how horses adapt when they're ridden, so many of these horses if you just watch them trot up and down in a straight line, they don’t show lameness in the conventional sense.

“For me it’s essential to see the horse ridden and see his movement can be improved through nerve blocks so you really understand what the underlying problem is. Without knowing where the pain is coming from how can you treat it and start a management programme with the horse’s physiotherapist, farrier and the rest of your team?”

Throughout our seminar Recognising Pain-Related Poor Performance Sue gives you lots of tips on how to assess horses, so you’ll go away with the skills to help you recognise when a horse isn’t quite performing as he should.

It's important to be able to identify any issues early on – leave it too long and the horse is likely to develop secondary adaptations in the way he moves, altering his muscle development and changing neuromuscular pathways as well. This downward spiral in performance can be avoided if you recognise and address the problem early and this is just what this one day seminar will cover.


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