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Fear vs Pain

Horse Pain
Horse Fear.jpg

One of the hardest things to do when reading a horse is to distinguish between fear and pain.  The two are very closely related although they originate from different response mechanisms.


I see fear as a type of pain in itself, just not a physical one.  This, in my opinion, is why fear and pain are so hard to tell apart.  Fear may be felt without pain; pain may be felt without fear; and, indeed, fear and pain may be felt together.


Let us first understand the basic neural processes involved in the transmission of pain and fear to the physical body, and learn what they both mean to the horse as opposed to the human.  Then we can start to look at the different behaviours and expressions conveyed by the fearful horse, and the horse in pain.

Central & Peripheral Nervous Systems


The central nervous system includes the spinal cord and the brain, both of which are contained within a series of protective bones (namely the skull for the brain and the vertebrae for the spinal cord). The brain is divided into 3 main sections - the brain stem, which controls basic life functions; the cerebrum, which is the centre of conscious decision-making; and the cerebellum, which is involved in movement and motor control. The spinal cord of horses is divided into regions that correspond to the vertebral bodies (the bones that make up the spine).  Specialised layered membranes (meninges) encapsulate the brain and spinal cord, and cerebrospinal fluid (which is located in the space between two of the layers) surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord.


The peripheral nervous system consists of all neural structures that are found outside of the brain and the spinal cord, throughout the rest of the body.


The central nervous system is often referred to as the central processing unit.  It receives messages in from the peripheral nervous system, and then sends its instructions back through the peripheral nervous system.

Reflex & Voluntary Response Mechanisms


There are two main response mechanisms in the horse - reflex and voluntary.  


Responses that are automatic, immediate and fixed are known as ‘reflex’ or involuntary (pain comes under this response mechanism).  Other responses which involve a decision to act based upon a number of factors such as motivation (provided by sensory input from vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and previous experience are known as ‘voluntary’ (fear comes under this response mechanism).



Pain is an involuntary response that alerts an individual to internal or external injury - it serves to protect the physical body against further damage.


Stimuli received from the likes of heat, cold, mechanical & chemical means (known as noxious stimuli) activate free sensory nerve endings known as nociceptors. Sensory information is transmitted from nociceptors to the spinal cord, which directs and modulates input. Nociceptive information arriving in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord may (if necessary) activate motor neurones responsible for the reflex responses to noxious stimuli (i.e. withdrawing a limb).


For a horse to experience pain, information is sent to higher centres in the central nervous system to be interpreted into the conscious perception of pain. In general, nociceptive information travels up the spinal cord along superficial and deep pathways to the brain stem with connections to the thalamus (which relays motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, which plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, cognition, awareness, thought and consciousness), reticular formation (responsible for the level of stimulation), and limbic system (responsible for emotions). From these areas of the brain, nociceptive information is relayed to the cortex, where it is perceived as pain.


Naturally, presumably as a survival mechanism, horses do not tend to openly express pain unless it is severe.  Horses in pain tend to tilt their ears back, elevate their eyebrows, and scrunch their nostrils up. The horse may exhibit a similar expression when worried or angry but there is a subtle distinction between the two.  It often can come down to a knowing within yourself also.  Trust your own instinct - if you have the feeling that your horse is in pain or unwell then he probably is.  Human’s are natural empaths, even if we are not consciously aware of this fact.


Lameness, uneven gait, toe pointing, sweating, elevated heart rate, increased rate of respiration, frequently moving weight from one limb to another, change in stance, pacing, frequent rolling, reluctance to move, jaw crossing, etc, can all be signs that the horse is in pain or discomfort of some kind.


Sudden acute pain that catches the horse by surprise may be exhibited more openly by way of bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking, biting etc.  It is these more animated pain responses that can very easily be confused or mistaken for fear and vice versa.

Horse in Pain
Horse in Pain
Pain, toe pointing



A healthy animal makes sound, emotion-based decisions all the time.  He has to; otherwise he would not survive.  For example, fear of the scent of a predator causes a prey species to run away and escape being caught.  That makes fear a basic, predominant emotion for horses.  We tend to refer to a horse's excitability or his spookiness or his level of agitation, but what it all boils down to is fear, which horses and all animals experience far more vividly than we do.


If you gave most people a choice between intense pain and intense fear, they'd probably pick fear. I believe that's because humans have a lot more power to control fear than animals do.

And that's because we can use our analytical faculties courtesy of our prefrontal cortex to understand and rationalise our fears, whereas animals cannot. All your horse knows is, "This is scary, which means I'm in danger of being killed, which means I need to get out away from here”.


Common fear reactions include bolting, bucking, rearing, striking, kicking, leaping sideways / forward, elevated heart rate, wide eyes showing whites, etc. Horses are designed with fear as a survival mechanism - they are hard-wired to either run away from predators, throw them off their backs with a strong buck, or to fight them through striking and kicking if running is not an option.

Horse Fear.jpg
Horse Fear, Flight
Horse Fear, Fight
Horse Fear or Pain

Fear of Pain : Fear of Fear : Working Out What’s What


Fear of pain or fear of fear can become a learned behaviour.  If a horse is put repeatedly into a situation where he is going to be in pain then it stands to reason that he would start to fear that situation arising.  


For example (and this is just one example), a badly fitting saddle that causes pain when the horse is ridden may soon result in the horse fearing the sight of the saddle because of his association with pain.  But then consider this… the saddle fits fine but the horse is fearful of the rider, or training methods used, perhaps because he is not given time to understand what is being asked of him, and gets into trouble for it.  Pretty soon the horse is going to begin to fear that situation.  The horse becomes aware of what happens before what happens happens!  The saddle is put on before the rider can mount - so by way of association the horse begins to fear the sight of the saddle.


Herein lies a common problem.  Fear of the saddle.  I see it a lot in my line of work.  I then have to set about figuring out why this problem has occurred… through pain or through fear.  Having a sound knowledge of correct saddle fit is key to ruling in or out the possibility that the saddle itself is causing the problem.  As an alternative saddle fitter I fit saddles to the moving shape of the horse rather than the static shape.  It is imperative to understand that a horse needs to lift his back and expand through the rib cage in order to move correctly and carry a rider without strain or injury. If the saddle fits fine then I have to work out if the rider/training methods are causing the problem, if there is pain somewhere else, or if the underlying cause has been resolved and we are dealing with a learned behaviour (pattern behaviour).  In these situations it helps to have as much background as possible about the horse and rider.  In the case of a horse and rider combination being successful together for a long time then any sudden behavioural change is likely to indicate a pain response to something.  If it is a new combination then its more likely to be a fear response to the riding or training methods, or pattern behaviour challenge that has been inherited with the horse.  It could, of course, also be a pain response to something else.


So, when reading the horse in order to work out what the underlying problem is, it is imperative that we take note of every tiny detail and clue being given to us by the horse in order that we can piece everything together to come to a successful conclusion and, therefore, help the horse to overcome the pain or fear so the partnership can move forward together.












Every horse deserves to be handled and trained with compassion and respect.  We owe it to the horse to learn his language and understand, at the earliest opportunity, when things are not right such that we can make them so.


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