Exactly 11 months ago today, I had my rescued chestnut mare, Gracie, put to sleep. She had been on a steep decline for two weeks, with final biopsy results showing that she was in the very end stages of hepatic (liver) failure. The thing was, she had actually been sick for a long time, but I never knew it, because she was a stoic horse that never showed obvious outward signs of pain.
I was very lucky to be taking a course on equine facial expressions and body language at the time. I had learned just days earlier that tense nostrils with a cleft signaled pain - and when I went to check on her after barn staff said she wasn't eating breakfast, it was the first thing I noticed. Gracie was standing very still, which made it seem like she was napping, but I noticed the taut nose, the clamped mouth, the half-closed eyes, and I knew that it was more than that.
This post isn't a story about that whole situation, tragic as it was. Really, it's about how knowledge of equine facial expressions is important to checking in on their well-being. I knew enough to read Gracie's facial expressions and call the vet for an emergency visit on the spot. But if I hadn't been able to read those signs, I might have waited another day with a "wait-and-see" approach, only calling the vet when she had missed another meal. She got care faster and her pain could be alleviated sooner, even though we found out her condition was terminal.
Illness is not the only situation where we need to be cognizant of our horse's facial expressions. I have seen even close friends post photos of themselves riding horses that were clearly in discomfort or pain, but the person riding (and oftentimes even riding instructors) were unaware. Harsh or ill-fitting bridles and saddles can cause pinching and discomfort, and even if a horse doesn't "act out" in a way that lets us know that "hey, there's a problem here", their expression will say it all - quietly. Considering that we are often the ones putting horses in a situation that causes the pain in the first place, it's our responsibility to understand and respond to their unique ways of communication.
I teamed up with an incredible graphic designer - Betsy of Blue Nebula Creative - to create this visual guide. It's my hope that everyone can download this and use it to study and distinguish when a horse may need assistance or an adjustment to their tack.
Click below to download the full, high-quality PDF version!
For more information on reading equine facial expressions, I recommend these books:
Horse Behavior Exposed by Abigail Hogg
Horse Speak: The Equine-Human Translation Guide by Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel
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