Beauty is Pain?

This diagram shows how horse’s express pain through their face, we call this their “grimace” or “pain face”. We’ve studied equine facial and body language expressions of discomfort and pain. In doing so we’ve learned to recognize and even measure the pain expression on a scale. Because horses are stoic, for their own safety, signs of pain can be subtle. Some horses won’t show lameness or internal pain until the symptoms are extreme. But we can learn to recognize the signs of pain before they become extreme, often very late to begin treatment.

In equestrian culture pain behaviors and expressions are often dismissed as an inconvenience or misbehavior. How often do we see people punish horses for acting out while being girthed? Or when a horse is reluctant to speed up? Or when they toss a buck when asked to bend? Or when they become reactive to being touched? What about horses who do whatever they can to avoid the rider getting on? How often are screaming signs of pain ignored because it’s inconvenient to us as riders? So often blaring signs of pain or fear of pain is just ignored as the horse being “fresh”, “disrespectful”, or “rude”. But since when is it disrespectful to honestly express their pain? If it’s constantly ignored the horse is going to have to scream louder and louder to be heard, until they are labelled “dangerous” or has “behavioral problems”.

What’s more disturbing is if you look at the horse pain face or the horse grimace scale, you’ll notice something concerning. Horses in Art are almost always displaying a face of pain or fear. How often do we look at a beautiful piece of art of a horse, seeing their ears turned back, their lips wrinkled tight, their eyes in a clear triangle, nose flared… Why do we look at these images of apparent pain and think “wow how beautiful?” Suffering has been so dismissed, that we’ve turned it around into something we consider beautiful! We are so used to seeing horses displaying pain that we’ve reproduced it in art as something nice to look at.

We need to start recognizing what we’re seeing, understanding how serious it is to see a horse displaying pain. Whether the horse is injured, sick, or if the tack/tools we’re using are creating pain. We need to accept the information the horses are showing us as fact and address the problem. Get your tack fit, learn to ride more gently, call your vet, nutritionist, body worker, etc… Do not dismiss pain in your horse, and learn to recognize it at farms and events you go to. Learning to see these things is vital to equine welfare and so is responding appropriately. Take the time to learn this, take the time and money to get the professional help your horse needs. Pain isn’t acceptable.

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