The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

Don’t wait until your horse is in pain to check their comfort levels!

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“She was always crazy, but that day she just went nuts. She bolted for two miles just because a bird flew up into the air. I was too frightened to ride her any more. I wish we’d just given her away. We managed to sell her, even though the sales livery yard despaired at times at what to do with her.”

I’m frustrated…

I’m frustrated at horses being labelled as naughty when they’re actually lame or in pain. How else is a horse supposed to tell you that he’s hurting other than through his behaviour? Since you’re reading this, I know you share my frustration. We know that just about everyone loves their horse and wants the best for him. You’d be devastated if he was in pain and you didn’t know about it. So, to help owners and riders be more confident that their horse is comfortable, I’ve put together this short video and blog, which I’d appreciate it if you would share widely on your favourite social media channel.

Here are three simple exercises you can do on a daily basis to check that your horse is comfortable.

Disclaimer: Please be aware that horses can be dangerous, and following these exercises is done at your own risk. Sue Palmer / The Horse Physio accepts no responsibility for accidents or injuries that may be caused.

Check the back

Technique: Gradually press into your horse’s muscles just behind the shoulder blade, in the withers pocket. Slowly and firmly (up to as hard as you would press to dent a football), move your hand from withers to quarters (it should take 5 to 10 seconds to get from front to back). Then, do the same thing in the opposite direction, moving slowly and firmly against the hair, from quarters to withers.

The ideal: there should be no reaction from your horse.

Check for: Amongst other things, any reaction of discomfort (for example, moving away, head up, swinging head round towards you), the muscle contracting and suddenly feeling hard where you’re pressing, rippling of the muscles as though the horse is being tickled, signs of discomfort when you move against the hair but not when you move in the direction of the hair, heat, lumps, swellings. If you find any of these, consider contacting your vet or local Chartered Physiotherapist ( to find out why and whether that could be affecting your horse’s behaviour or performance.

Check the bend

What to do: Running your fingers down in front of the shoulder blade, place your other hand around your horse’s nose and gently ask him to bend his head around towards you. When he’s bending as far as he feels comfortable to do so, ask him to hold this position for at least 30 seconds.

Why: Stiffness through the neck can occur for many reasons and can create a variety of problems, including taking a long time to warm up in his ridden work and not moving freely through the forehand.

The ideal: Your horse is willing to bend his head and neck around when asked and to hold that position.

Check for: Bending more willingly or further in one direction than the other.

Check the turn

What to do: Turn your horse in a tight turn around you in the walk, ideally on a soft surface and then on a hard surface, keeping him moving very slightly forwards as he turns.

The ideal: Your horse turns as willingly and easily to the right as he does to the left. He crosses his left hind under when turning left as easily as he crosses his right hind under when turning right. He weight bears for the same amount of time through his right fore when turning right as he does through his left fore when turning left.

Check for: Amongst other things, difficulty turning one way compared to the other, able to cross one hind leg under better than the other, weight-bearing from a shorter amount of time on one inside fore than the other, being able to cross one outside fore over and not the other, any other differences from left to right.

What if there’s a problem?

Is your horse’s behaviour or performance affected by pain or discomfort? A horse can only demonstrate pain or discomfort through his behaviour or his performance, and it’s up to us to learn his language to the best of our ability so that we can better understand what he’s trying to tell us.

If you find anything on the ‘check for’ lists above or anything that doesn’t seem right, consider contacting your vet or physical therapist to find out whether this could be affecting your horse’s comfort, behaviour, or performance. In the UK, you can find Chartered Physiotherapists at the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy and Registered Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners at the Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners. Similar organisations may exist in other countries.

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about how to check your horse’s comfort levels in hand, check out my book, ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain, or Training?’.

To objectively recognise pain in the ridden horse, you can use the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. Here’s a blog I wrote about that. Subscribe to my free newsletter for a 20% discount on the book on the subject, ‘Harmonious Horsemanship,’ which I co-authored with Dr Sue Dyson.

If you’d like to manage minor aches and pains in your horse, take a look at my online course, ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’. Subscribe to my free newsletter for a 20% discount.

Meet Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer MCSP, aka The Horse Physio, is an award-winning author, educator, and Chartered Physiotherapist who promotes kind and fair treatment of horses through empathetic education. Sue specialises in understanding the links between equine pain and behaviour and is registered with the RAMP, the ACPAT, the IHA, the CSP and the HCPC.

Popular books and online courses include:

Harmonious Horsemanship, co-authored with Dr Sue Dyson (book)

Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training? (book)

Horse Massage for Horse Owners (book)

Horse Massage for Horse Owners (online course)

Stretching Your Horse: A Guide to Keeping Your Equine Friend Happy and Healthy (online course)

Thank you

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