We have written a lot about the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) developed by Dr. Sue Dyson and her team and will continue to do so because we believe it is an extremely valuable tool to help us recognise subtler signs of pain and subtle lameness in horses. Recently, the protocol was put to yet another test, confirming its practical value. 

How Can You Increase your Horse's Welfare and also Boost Performance?

For those of you who don’t know about the RHpE, let me introduce it very quickly. The RHpE is a catalogue of 24 behaviours that are more likely to occur in horses exhibiting pain or subtle lameness than in sound horses. The behaviours range from exposed sclera of the eyes, opening the mouth, swishing the tail to rearing, spontaneous changes in gait and so on. If a horse is exhibiting more than 8 of these behaviours during ridden work, there is a strong possibility that the horse is experiencing musculoskeletal pain.


The ethogram has been tested in many different situations, on many different horses and just recently it has undergone yet another examination, this time in connection to performance results.

In a study done by Dyson and Ellis, the ethogram was applied to horses competing in 5* three day events, in order to see if there is a relationship between the ethogram score and subsequent performance. The horses were observed for 10-12 minutes during the warm-up before the dressage phase of the competition and the ethogram was applied to them by an experienced assessor. The researchers were curious about whether or not the horses who exhibited seven or more behaviours listed in the ethogram, would be unable to complete the cross-country phase of the competition. They found out that the horses who did not complete this phase had higher RHpE scores compared to those that did complete it. Out of the horses who scored higher than 7 on the ethogram, 59% failed to complete the cross country phase. There was also a moderate correlation between dressage penalty scores and the ethogram score. All in all there was a significant relationship between RHpE scores and the final placing in the competition. This means that the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram could be a useful tool for predicting performance.

How Can You Increase your Horse's Welfare and also Boost Performance?

This study obviously has enormous value not only in equine welfare, but also in enhancing performance in competitions – two goals that should go hand in hand anyway. Studies in the past have shown that 50% of sport horses are exhibiting gait abnormalities, most likely reflecting musculoskeletal pain. Often, the riders or owners are unaware of this, as horses tend to compensate for any pain or discomfort and can be very good at hiding their issues. More astute riders can pick up on subtle signs of gait irregularities, but some do not.

This is why riders everywhere require an additional tool with which to assess if their horses are experiencing pain. The ethogram is relatively easy to understand and use in practice. By applying it to horses in competition on a regular basis, the rider or trainer can pick up on early signs of discomfort, leading to earlier resolution of any existing problems. This not only increases the horse’s welfare and his willingness to work, it also boosts performance.

Since horses are such masters at hiding their pain, it is our responsibility to make use of any tools we can that help us detect discomfort in its early stages. This is the only ethical way to use horses for competition and leisure. 

How Can You Increase your Horse's Welfare and also Boost Performance?


If you want to learn more about the ethogram and how to use it in practice, we invite you to take a look at our online course, based on Dr. Dyson’s work. In the holiday spirit, this course is discounted by 30% for all  until the end of the month – Enter coupon code: EQHoliday2020 on the checkout page, and your discount will be applied. You may also purchase this course for a friend, who can avail of the discounted price using the code until 31st December.

Purchase the discounted course for yourself here:

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