Monday, August 06, 2018

Dyson: Equine performance assessment tests veterinarians' ability to recognize pain-related behavior

equine physiotherapist evaluating horse
Before the study horses were ridden, Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT) physiotherapist Jo Spear assessed each one. (Saddle Research Trust photo)

Will veterinarians succeed in using Dr Sue Dyson's new "equine ethogram" system to identify behavioral signs of musculoskeletal pain in horses?

A new method for equine performance assessment has been tested on veterinarians in the United Kingdom. The test was part of a study conducted by Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, Head of Clinical Orthopedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England.

The Hoof BlogDyson assessed how accurately veterinarians may be able to use a lameness-specific ethogram, (a zoological term for a collective catalogue or table of all the different kinds of behavior or activity observed in an animal).

Her recent research identifying certain behaviors as clues to subtle equine lameness has expanded the larger, more general equine ethogram to be able to assess pain in ridden horses. 

The participating veterinarians collectively commended the value of the new ethogram, which defines 24 ridden behaviors that may reflect pain and lameness.

The study was conducted at World Horse Welfare's Hall Farm Rescue and Rehoming Centre in Norfolk, England last month. Twenty horse and rider combinations, together with a range of professional practitioners, volunteered their time to support the study, which the researchers feel has the potential to transform the welfare of ridden horses.

Dyson study equine ethogram
Each horse in the study was warmed up for 15 minutes and then asked to perform an eight-minute dressage test. (Saddle Research Trust photo)

Initially the horses were assessed by an Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT) physiotherapist, Jo Spear. The back was examined to check for any areas of muscle tightness or discomfort. Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) saddle fitter, Liz Suddaby, checked the fit, placement, balance and suitability of each horse’s saddle. The horses were then given a 15-minute ridden warm-up before executing an eight-minute purpose-designed dressage test.

A team of ten equine practitioners was selected from 40 volunteers attending the session. The appraisal team consisted of four men and six women; participants varied in their years of experience. During the dressage test, these vets scored each horse for the presence of 24 behaviors that may reflect pain. 

The tests were filmed so that Dyson could make a comparison between her own real-time behavior assessments and video analysis and so that the rider skill level could be scored retrospectively by Anne Bondi, BHSI, PhD.

Ten volunteer veterinarians from the 40 in attendance carefully evaluated each horse for signs of behavior indicative of reaction to lameness pain, as identified in previous research that established an equine ethogram for lameness. Study leader Sue Dyson stands with her back to the camera. (Saddle Research Trust photo)

The appraisal team veterinarians collectively said that it was one of the best days of continual professional development that they had ever had and that they would change their procedures for both pre-purchase examinations and investigations of either lameness or poor performance in the future.

Helen Whitbread of Deben Valley Equine Veterinary Clinic in Framsden, England summarized: “This system is such a useful tool; most of the factors we were scoring were not a surprise, but by being able to quantify the pain in a way that a client can understand and relate to is priceless. 

Dr. Sue Dyson (Hoofcare Publishing
"Too often in the past our suggestions that a horse is demonstrating abnormal ridden behavior because of pain has been brushed aside as ‘it has always done that’. Now I can say, for example: ‘Yes, it has scored >8 and is therefore likely to have been in musculoskeletal pain the whole time you have owned it’.” 

Sue Dyson continued: "The behavioral differences between the lame and non-lame horses in the study were very apparent. I am currently cross-referencing analysis of the volunteers’ results with me as the Gold Standard. 

"Early indications show that by giving vets a clear understanding of pain-associated behavior markers they will be better able to recognize pain-related behavior in ridden horses, which may reflect lameness, and to communicate potential performance problems more effectively with their clients.”

An overview of this study will be presented at the Saddle Research Trust Conference in the United Kingdom on Saturday, December 8, 2018. To learn more about the conference, visit

1. Dyson, S, Berger, J, Ellis, A, Mullard, J. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. J Vet Behav: Clin Appl Res doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2017.10.008

The research is currently available to be read in full without a journal subscription.  The lameness ethogram study article was indexed by HoofSearch in November 2017. Information used in this article was provided by the Saddle Research Trust.

To learn more:  
Sue Dyson: Double video explanation of equine ethogram for recognizing lameness and pain

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