Study Correlates Lesser-Known Pain Behaviors To Poorer Scoring For Eventers — Even After They Passed Jogs

A recent study has used a horse behavior scale to identify high-level event horses at risk of poor cross-country performance. Drs. Sue Dyson and Andrea Ellis completed two studies: one was a preliminary study that used 35 horses competing on the second day of dressage at the 2018 Burghley CCI 4*. The main study used 70 horses warming up for dressage at the 2019 Badminton CCI 5* horse trials and 67 horses warming up for dressage at the 2019 Burghley horse trials.

Each horse was observed for between 10 and 12 minutes by Dr. Sue Dyson while they warmed up. She then she applied the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) to determine if the horse was pain-free and recorded her findings. The RHpE uses 24 behaviors to determine if a horse is experiencing musculoskeletal discomfort.

The behaviors include tilting the head, swishing the tail, staring for more than five seconds, spooking, rearing, bucking, exposing the tongue, moving the ears back for more than five seconds, clamping the tail or opening the mouth and separating the teeth for more than 10 seconds.

A horse that exhibits at least eight of the behaviors is believed to have a musculoskeletal issue. The more behaviors he shows, the more pain he is most likely experiencing. The most frequent score a non-lame horse garners is 2 out of 24; the study shows that a score of seven or more in four- and five-star equine competitors was more reliable to identify horses whose performance may be impaired because of pain.

The duo then compared RHpE scores for the competition horses to final results in terms of dressage penalties, cross-country performance, showjumping penalties and final placings. They found a moderate correlation between dressage penalty scores and the RHpE score; the correlation was much more pronounced in the cross-country phase: 10 of the 17 horses (59 percent) with an RHpE score of 7 or more failed to finish the cross-country phase; 39 out of 117 horses (33 percent) with a score below 7 failed to finish.

The team found no relationship between the RHpE score and show jumping performance. However, there was a significant relationship between total RHpE score and final horse placings, with horses having higher RHpE scores being placed lower than horses with low RHpE scores.

The scientists concluded that top-level competition horses at three-day events can pass the preliminary in-hand horse inspection, but show signs of lameness when ridden and demonstrate the behavioral changes assessed with the RHpE. Though there are many reasons a horse-and-rider team may not complete the cross-country phase of eventing competition, there is a strong correlation between horses that exhibit behaviors on the RHpE and a failure to complete. This indicates that underlying musculoskeletal discomfort may be a contributory cause to not finishing the cross-country phase of eventing.

Read the article here.

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