The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

4.3.2022 My Learnings From The Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference

I was grateful to be able to watch the replay of the Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference, which was presented online on 11th December 2021. Here I share with you some of my learnings from the conference. Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

Dr Sue Dyson

Application Of The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram To Improve Equine Welfare And Performance: Part 1

Equine sports are under increasing scrutiny, with social licence being a phrase you are probably aware of. If horse riding is to continue as a hobby and a sport, this is one reason why it’s important that we are proactive in ensuring the health and well being of our horses.

At the other end of the spectrum, recognising early symptoms of pain and discomfort means recognising early aspects of performance that could potentially be improved. Addressing these might give those marginal gains that make the difference between first and second place.

The ridden horse pain ethogram is a step towards being proactive in improving the health and well being of horses, specifically in recognising pain in the ridden horse. The ridden horse pain ethogram is a list of 24 behaviours, the majority of which are ten or more times likely to be seen in a horse with musculoskeletal pain. Studies have shown that a horse who shows 8 or more of the 24 behaviours listed in the ridden horse pain ethogram is likely to have musculoskeletal pain. Some lame horses have a ridden horse pain ethogram score of less than 8.

The RHpE was developed through studying a group of lame and non lame horses. The non lame horses were show jumpers and dressage horses. These were evaluated in hand, with flexion tests of front and hind legs, on the lunge on the soft and on the hard, and ridden. The horses that were classified as non lame didn’t show lameness on any of these tests. The lame horses were horses that were undergoing clinical investigation for poor performance or lameness.

Initially, the researchers came up with a list of 117 behaviours, and this was whittled down to 24 through the comparison of the lame and non lame horses. The non lame horses scored a maximum of 6/24, with an average of 2. The lame horses scored a maximum of 14/24, with an average of 9. The scores for the lame horses went down substantially after the lameness was removed with nerve blocks.

The 24 behaviours are divided into 3 categories: facial markers, body markers, gait markers.

The behaviours are:

Ears rotated back behind the vertical or flat (both or one only) for 5 or more seconds, or repeatedly lay flat

Eye lids closed or half closed for 2-5 seconds, or rapid blinking

Sclera exposed, repeatedly

Intense stare for 5 or more seconds

Mouth opening with or without shutting repeatedly with separation of the teeth, for 10 or more seconds

Tongue exposed, protruding or hanging out, and / or moving in and out

Bit pulled through the mouth on one side (left or right), repeatedly

Repeated changes of head position (up / down, but not in rhythm with trot)

Head tilted, repeatedly

Head in front of vertical (30 degrees or more) for 10 or more seconds

Head behind vertical (10 degrees or more) for 10 or more seconds

Head position changes repeatedly, moving from side to side

Tail clamped tightly to middle or held to one side

Tail swishing large movements; repeatedly up and down / side to side / circular; during transitions

A rushed gait (frequency of trot steps greater than 40 per 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 per 15 seconds); passage like trot

Hindlimbs do not follow tracks of forelimbs but deviated to left or right; on 3 tracks in trot or canter

Canter repeated strike off wrong leg; change of leg in front and / or behind (disunited, cross-cantering)

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 riders cues, 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)

There are other factors that might influence whether or not the horse demonstrates these behaviours. These include the skill level of the rider, the rider’s size and position in the saddle, the fit of the tack, and other pain issues, for example gastric ulceration. Dr Dyson has found that although the rider’s skill level affects the behaviours that the horse shows, and may change those behaviours, the RHpE score will still reflect musculoskeletal pain.

A study in 2020 looked at the influence of rider skill on ridden horse behaviour, using the quality of the gait, and the ridden horse pain ethogram as assessment tools. 40 horses were ridden by their own rider, and by a professional rider. The horse were ridden through a specific 8.5 minute ridden test based at Prelim level which included 10m diameter circles on both reins. The quality of the gait was assessed and graded based on FEI guidelines, and the riders were graded on a 0-10 scale based on FEI guidelines. The ridden horse pain ethogram was assessed via video recordings of the entire ridden tests.

The researchers found that gait quality improved with the professional rider in each case. In 11 horses, a low grade lameness was seen with the normal rider, but not with the professional rider. 3 horses showed poor hindlimb impulsion with their normal rider, but hindlimb lameness on one hindlimb with the professional rider. There was no significant difference in the total ridden horse pain ethogram scores, but there were some changes in the behaviours shown between the test with the normal rider and the test with the professional rider. Notable differences were that the horse was more likely to go with his head in front of the vertical with the normal rider, and with the head behind the vertical with the professional rider. He was more likely to be reluctant to go forwards with the more demanding professional rider, and the bit was more likely to be pulled through to one side of the mouth with the normal rider. This study suggests that a good rider cannot hide the behavioural signs of discomfort in the horse. They may be able to alter the quality of the horse’s gait and reduce lameness, but they cannot hide the behavioural signs of pain.

The applications of the RHpE in the real world could include pre-purchase examinations, identifying problems that exist even without lameness, and identifying a problem that may be subclinical (so low level that it can’t easily be seen) but could be managed. It could also be used in assessing saddle fit for horse and rider, and in the semi-objective evaluation of the response to treatment of an underlying, pain related problem.

It can be the case that a horse is coping at his current work level, with his regular rider, and appears to move symmetrically, yet demonstrates behavioural signs of discomfort. When buying a new horse, a RHpE score of 8 or more could be regarded as a warning sign that high maintenance is likely to be required. It’s also possible that with a change in ownership and therefore management (for example, turnout, level and type of work, consistency of work, farriery, saddle fit, rider skill level, surface, dentistry, feed, and more), the problem could get worse. A professional rider selling a horse might be able to improve the quality of the horse’s movement, but they will not be able to affect the RHpE score.

Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

March 4, 2022
Sue Palmer