Masters of Disguise


By Amy Snow and Nancy Zidonis

Horses are the grand cover-up artists; they are masters of disguising pain. Not showing pain is inherent to the species. In the wild, if horses were to show any signs of pain or weakness, their lives would be at risk and maybe even threaten the safety of the entire herd. Horses will do everything they can to not display any evidence of pain or injury. A compromised horse is most likely a dead horse and they know this deep in their shared psyche.

As horse guardians, this means we have to pay attention to the subtle signs of pain and discomfort because by the time the horse is showing evidence of pain he is experiencing debilitating pain. Aside from an obvious injury or a rapid onset of some specific issue like colic, we are not going to know how long the animal has been suffering unless we can detect very early signs of discomfort.  From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, the longer the horse has been in a compromised condition the longer and more difficult it is to heal. The sooner we detect the horse’s pain the more quickly we can help resolve it.

Indicators of Pain
What are the signs of equine pain? There are many indicators, some more obvious and some less noticeable.  Most horse-people could quickly create a list of indicators such as:


Dull-eye and withdrawn
Reduced mobility or locomotion
Any abnormal swelling
When saddling or mounting - flinching or back dropping-out
Bucking riders off
Resistance to taking a particular lead
Hesitation in changing gait
Faults at jumps
Not able to flex his neck
Not eating
Difficulty urinating or defecating
Biting at his flank
“Pawing” the ground
Lying down with difficulty getting up
Sudden onset of aggression
These are a number of the most obvious indicators of pain and avoidance of pain. Most of us would make a mental note, and then keep checking to see if the horse continues to demonstrate the same sign of pain for any length of time, or if it starts to become a more acute situation.

One of the best methods of detecting pain is to check your horse’s heart rate, especially when you are concerned or have a hunch that your horse is “off.”

A less obvious indication of pain is an elevated heart rate. The normal equine heart rate varies in relation to age: the rate for foals is 70 to 120 beats per minute (bpm); a yearling’s rate is 45 to 60 bpm; and the two-years-old and up heart rate is 40 to 50 bpm.  One of the best methods of detecting pain is to check your horse’s heart rate, especially when you are concerned or have a hunch that your horse is "off". A rapid standing heart rate is a clear indication that the animal is suffering in some manner.

Another conventional clinical method of checking for any pain is by having blood drawn to see if the plasma cortisol concentration is elevated. If your wholistic veterinarian tells you that it is, your horse is most likely experiencing pain at that time. If this were the case, the horse would most likely have been experiencing pain for awhile. Detecting the genesis of the pain is the next step since this is only evidence that pain exists.


TCM Methods of Assessing Pain


In assessing a horse’s condition many TCM Practitioners take the animal’s pulses.  On a horse, pulses are taken along the carotid artery in the groove lateral to the trachea and craniodorsal to the sternum on both sides of the neck. A thin, wiry feel, or a “sinking” feeling to the pulse are definite indicators of pain. Usually, a practitioner can attribute the pain to a particular organ system so that they can be more specific about the source of the pain. Reading pulses is an art and a study unto itself; it takes years of practice and refinement to become proficient at reading pulses.

Association Points

An easier method of assessing a horse’s condition that most of us can utilize effectively in a relatively short period of study is checking the Association Points along the Bladder Meridian. Most beginners in equine acupressure are quickly able to assess the animal’s condition by performing the Opening sequence of an acupressure session. Please note the sidebar instructions and Association Point Chart.

Pain Points
If you suspect that your horse is experiencing some level of pain, these are specific acupressure points that can be used immediately. Please consult your wholistic healthcare practitioner for assessment and care when your horse exhibits pain.



Start by finding a comfortable location for you and your horse where it is calm and you both can relax. Slowly, take three even breaths in and out. Think about how you want to help your horse not to be in any sort of pain and take a moment to formulate your intent of seeking any indication of pain before performing this Opening Sequence. Begin by resting one hand near your horse’s shoulder. Using the heel of your other hand, place it on the withers and gently stroke down his back, just off the midline. Continue stroking down to the hindquarters staying to the side of the midline. Your opposite hand can trail along the same path touching the horse lightly. You are actually tracing the Bladder Meridian. Repeat this stroking procedure three times on each side of your horse.

After the third time of tracing along the Bladder Meridian, go much more slowly while looking at the Association Point Chart and do your best to feel each of the acupoints noted on the chart. You are feeling to see if one point is much hotter or colder, or much harder or softer than the next. If these acupoints feel different from one another, then you have identified an imbalance that could mean the horse is experiencing some level of pain. We suggest you consult with your wholistic equine healthcare practitioner if this is the case.

As you glide the heel of your hand over the Association Points, watch the horse’s reaction to the pressure you are applying.  Needless to say, if a horse’s back drops out, or he suddenly moves away or flinches, you know that he is avoiding any kind of pressure because it is painful for him. Check the chart to see where the horse demonstrated the sensitivity - it could relate to a particular organ system such as the Lung or Stomach.

Additionally, while looking at the point chart, check for more subtle signs of pain by checking the Association Points slowly and carefully. Feel for distinct variations in temperature, density (i.e., hard/dense or soft/empty feeling). If there is an obvious difference in how the specific points feel, there is most likely an imbalance that is either uncomfortable or painful depending on the extent of the difference. The hotter or colder, harder or softer the Association Point feels, the more extreme or acute the condition may be. To actually interpret what the horse is presenting, you will need greater study.

 By looking at your horse with an eye to see anything that may seem “off” and then examining the Association Points, you have begun the assessment process that goes beyond the simple hunch. You now have detectable evidence with which to go forward and share with a wholistic equine healthcare professional. The sooner you are aware of discomfort or pain the better. And, your favorite master of disguise will be ever so grateful. Hoofprint

About the authors:

Nancy Zidonis and Amy Snow are the authors of Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual, The Well-Connected Dog: A Guide to Canine Acupressure, and Acu-Cat: A Guide to Feline Acupressure.  They own Tallgrass Publishers, which offers Meridian Charts for horses, dogs, and cats, plus Introducing Equine Acupressure, a 50-minute training video. They also provide hands-on and online training courses worldwide including a Practitioner Certification Program. To contact them: 888-841-7211;;