One of the best ways to catch pain early is to get to know your horse. Watch how he moves in the pasture, when being led, and under saddle. Run your hands over his body as you groom to get to know the scars, bumps, and sensitive areas he has when he is healthy.
Up close, use your sense of touch and observe how the horse reacts to your touch. It helps to know if your horse has sensitive skin, or not. A skin sensitivity can be tested by how the horse responds to a stiff brush, to a rubber curry, and to your nails. In observation by touch, you can feel muscular tone, check reflex response, feel for heat, and draw out pain reactions.
- Muscular tone should be loose, with minimal resistance, much like raw meat. Pushing on a major muscle group should flow to other areas, and jiggle. If the muscle is tight, the horse may be holding their pain throughout their body, or just have an issue in the area you are working on. If there is swelling or a fluid pocket, you will feel little or no resistance or a tightness, depending on the stage of the swelling.
- Check in the front shoulder and chest area where the muscle should have some tightness, but soreness is indicated by a guitar-string feeling.
- In the withers and upper shoulder area, the girth, the loin, the major butt muscle, and the hamstrings, the sore muscle will feel more like well-done meat, or cause a drawing (tightening or flexing) of that muscle or nearby muscles.
- Reflex response is primarily in the loin and buttocks. Draw your fingers about one inch on one side of the spine, from the loin to the tail. Use the back of your thumbnail, with moderate pressure. A horse with proper reflex response will tuck under themselves slightly. Severe response or reverse response (hollowing the back) is also an indication of soreness. Repeat on the other side.
- Sometimes, the sore muscle will feel hot, or there will be a static charge in the area. This is another reason to approach gently and move slowly. A static shock will startle the horse, and you may spend more time soothing them than checking for soreness. Run your hand down their legs and feel for heat or swelling in the joints, knees, and hoof. Other times, a sore muscle will be bound up, cutting off proper circulation. In that case, the area will feel cooler than other areas.
- Pain reactions are generally pulling away from your touch. If the pain is severe, the horse may reach around to bite, threaten to kick, kick, or pull back against the tie. Start your palpation gently, at the horse's shoulder. If the horse is not familiar with you, speak gently as you work, and take breaks for petting to help the horse relax. More subtly, the muscle itself or related muscles nearby will tighten and pull away from your touch as well.
One final way to know if your horse is sore: trusting your gut. If your horse seems "off" or unwilling to perform a particular maneuver, or if working with your horse is more difficult, especially if one side is more reactive than another, they may be trying to tell you something.
Watching your horse and using your hands, head, and heart to gauge how they are feeling each day is a great way to identify their pain quickly. Often, catching the problem early will mean a quick solution and a quick recovery.