Causes And Effects Of Stress In Horses

Causes And Effects Of Stress In Horses

Horses can experience stress from a variety of environmental and social factors — from their training and feeding schedules to their interactions with other horses in the pasture. Different horses may show stress in different ways, and some horses respond better to stressful situations than others. However, stress can be a serious problem for even the toughest horses as it can lead to health and behavioural issues when left unaddressed.

Just as humans experience stress in situations that are physically or mentally challenging, horses also experience stress as a natural response to changes or challenges in their environment. In some situations, stress is a helpful reaction that allows horses to cope or adapt. For example, if an unfamiliar animal enters a horse’s pasture, their natural stress response tells them to stay alert and approach that animal cautiously.

Causes And Effects Of Stress In Horses

Short-term stress helps keep a horse safe, but if the stress continues for a long time, it can have damaging effects to the horse’s health and well-being. When we talk about a horse being stressed, we are often referring to this type of chronic stress. Over time, horses can adapt to familiar stresses, such as traffic near their pasture or a new horse joining their pasture.

However, when faced with larger changes like a new training schedule or busy show season, horses may be unable to adjust and develop long-term stress. Chronic stress occurs when a horse’s stress hormone levels rise in response to a stressful situation and then fail to decrease again. Chronically elevated stress hormones can lead to changes in the horse’s behaviour and habits as well as cause many health problems.

Chronic stress in horses is most often the result of changes in the horse’s environment or lifestyle. Management changes, such as a more strenuous exercise routine or a new feeding schedule, can also lead to long-term stress. While some horses can adapt to these changes easily, other horses may have a harder time adjusting. Just as different people handle stressful situations differently, some horses are more likely to experience chronic stress than others.

Short-term stress allows horses to respond to their environment, like running away from a thunderous bang, and particularly if the horse has not been properly trained and desensitized to that sort of stimuli. However, if a horse remains stressed for a long period, it may start to exhibit dramatic changes in behaviour and other health problems.

A horse can feel stressed or anxious about environmental or social triggers. Stress can appear during their daily routine or in new or fast-paced situations like events. As an equestrian, it’s important to get to know your horse and its stress triggers, along with the methods you can use to reduce those stress responses.

It’s hard to imagine that an animal, though it may receive optimal care, can experience psychological stress that ultimately can affect its health. But horses, which can be very “emotional” creatures, are affected by stress, and how each animal responds to a situation differs. Research conducted by Malinowski and her colleagues at Cook College and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station is aimed at finding out if horses perceive certain routine training and management practices as “stressful”; and how such situations may impact the animal’s well-being.

The basis for research studies involving stress management for equine athletes is to reach a goal that all horse owners should strive for: the promotion of management techniques that allow the horse to perform to its maximum genetic potential, under humane conditions. These types of studies are extremely important and should be supported and funded by the horse industry because, in view of animal rights activists' movements, factual information is going to be needed when it comes to providing information about industry practices.

Stress can be defined as a general term that describes the combination of psychological and biological responses of an animal to novel or threatening circumstances. While the physiological response to stress is a highly complex subject and certainly is not completely understood, scientists agree that there are two types of stressors. Physical stressors are things such as injury, change in the environment and exertion. Psychological stressors typically include situations that make the animal anxious or fearful. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown can be categorized as two of the major psychological stressors.

Signs Of Horse Stress

Horses can be easily identified as being stressed by the following signs: Going Quiet or Lonely, Feeling Tired or Fatigued, Asking to be fed more often than usual, Repetitively pawing, chewing, and otherwise fidgeting with their bodies, Changes in their breathing patterns, Appearing “non-reactive” (non-emotional) to their environment and Feeling a general sadness or irritable.

A horse can feel stress and show signs of stress for many different reasons. Although a horse might experience stress at any time, the natural course of stress in a horse can sometimes trigger physical changes that indicate changes in behaviour or emotional state. One example of this would be a horse that has just started a new horse-training program.

Although some horses are more sensitive to the effects of stress than others, even the best-adjusted horses experience the effects of stress on their behaviours, body condition, and overall performance. Horse owners should keep an eye out for the following tell-tale signs of stress in their horse:

Feeling nervous: Horses who show signs of nervousness and unease are most likely experiencing stress. When horses show nervous behaviour, they may stamp, whoa, kick, walk or pace back and forth. These behaviours can be stressful to humans, but their purpose is to convey that they are not comfortable or happy. Staying at rest: Horses who exhibit signs of restlessness and are usually more “disengaged” are in a state of high alert.

How To Identify And Manage Horse's Stress

Horses can exhibit “natural horsemanship” stress responses that make it difficult to identify and assess a horse’s stress level. If a horse shows signs of stress such as dragging its feet or refusing to eat or drink, this could be a warning sign of sickness or infection. Other common horse stress behaviours include excessive twitching of the ears, extreme body language or quick-paced body motion, eye fixation, a dramatic decrease in coat quality or even biting.

When a horse shows multiple stress behaviours, it may be stressed but not show an obvious clinical sign of illness. In some cases, prolonged stress, for example in the face of a medical condition, can lead to the death of the horse.  Some stress responses are positive and necessary for horses to survive in the wild.

Although there are many ways in which a horse can experience stress, it is important to identify its cause and effect in order to help keep your horse’s stress levels in check. Consider the following questions:

  1. What causes the horse to be stressed?
  2. Is it something that is within the horse’s control?
  3. What causes the horse’s stress level to rise or fall?
  4. What is the way in which the horse can best cope with the stress?

There are many factors that can cause stress, and identifying these can be critical to successfully managing the situation. Remember, the environment that your horse is living in can cause stress regardless of what is causing it.

The Causes Of Stress In Horses

The Causes Of Stress In Horses

In addition to personal experience, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Animal Cruelty Research and Education (SPCA-ARC) has conducted research on the causes of stress in horses. They found that some horses exhibit a more intense response to stress than others.

In horses that show a high level of stress sensitivity, the cause may be related to an underlying genetic problem, an unusual sensory sensitivity to stimuli, or some other systemic issue that may include a dental issue.  Before taking an approach to stress in horses, it is important to evaluate the cause for stress so you know how to manage the situation.

As with many factors in the horse world, there are a number of different causes for stress. The causes of stress in horses can be determined by looking at the horse’s physiology and their environment. The most common causes of stress in horses include:

  • An environmental change in the horse’s natural environment — For example, if a horse is living in a relatively dry environment, it may be more likely to experience stress if a storm approaches.
  • Behavioral changes — Such as training methods, a change in the food or feed schedule, the presence of other horses, or unfamiliar behaviour from humans.
  • Natural predators — for example, horses are more likely to encounter wild animals, such as deer, that pose a threat to their survival if they are free-roaming.

The Effects Of Stress In Horses

Stress in horses can cause changes to a horse’s behaviour, but sometimes those changes can become too severe to manage. In these cases, the physical and emotional symptoms of stress can be so severe that it can be hard to cope with. Some horses become confused or lethargic, others become anxious, and others may even have aggression problems.

When horses show stress to their handlers or anyone else in their company, it may be a natural response to a perceived threat or challenge. Stressful situations like the appearance of an unfamiliar animal, the presence of a menacing shadow, or being too close to a strange or scary object can trigger a horse’s aggressive reaction. To some horses, even the presence of a human can be overwhelming — all they can do is try to find a safe place to hide.

When a horse feels a strong or prolonged amount of stress, the body’s stress response is strengthened and its response time may be slowed down, making it more difficult for them to cope. The constant stimulation of physical and psychological challenges to horses can quickly overwhelm their abilities, leaving them to become anxious, depressed or even dangerous. Some of the issues that can arise from too much stress are:

  • Inconsistent coat colour or texture.
  • Lethargy and a lack of energy.
  • Shaking.
  • Drop in body temperature.

Horses with the pituitary disorder Hyperhidrosis will lose their coat, sometimes even their skin, over extended periods of stressful conditions. They may become disoriented or even fall into comas.

What Can Horse Owners Do to Help With Stress

What Can Horse Owners Do to Help With Stress?

Horses experience stress when they’re stressed and most often when they’re stressed in response to their environment or to another horse. It’s important for owners to be aware of the ways in which their horse’s lifestyle might be leading to stress. Before considering any new behaviour, such as

  • adjusting to new pastures,
  • providing supplements,
  • moving or turning your horse’s stall,

It’s important to see whether the situation is a natural response to the horse’s environment or a problem, which should be addressed with your vet. If your horse’s behaviour has changed and you suspect the cause is stress, it’s wise to start by trying to eliminate one stressor — such as introducing the new pasture, changing their stall, or trying a new supplement.

Work with your horse’s natural instincts and training to help alleviate horse stress. If you work with a horse daily, or even during times when you aren’t sure what to do, this is where the “go with the horse’s natural instincts” concept can be helpful. Use regular riding and pasture rest periods as opportunities for your horse to come in and out of stress.

By offering frequent opportunities for the horse to return to his or her “natural state” of calm and relaxation, you can help prevent a reaction that is out of his or her control. To be sure your horse can’t learn to cope with stress through behaviour, try finding other ways to ease the horse’s stress and balance the natural behaviours of your horse. Keep his feed routine predictable.

Coping With Horse Stress

At times, though, horses can choose to ignore or refuse to respond to the alarm signal, called the “fight or flight response,” that their bodies send out during a stressful situation. This may happen when a horse is “trapped” in an area with a difficult or dangerous obstacle or when it’s trapped between a fence and an angry animal.

If a horse reacts to stress by shutting down its “fight or flight” response and relying on the protective instincts that evolved over millions of years, it can cause its own health problems by becoming too dangerous to handle and, in turn, must be removed from the pasture.  Knowing how to deal with stress in horses is an important skill for horse owners to possess.

While some horses can’t tolerate stress in their surroundings, most horses are able to cope with a variety of different situations and experiences, including:


Although horses are herd animals, each horse is able to cope with his/her own personal challenges. In other words, each horse is unique, and that’s a good thing.

Genetics and Personalities

A horse’s personality and individual characteristics, which are formed in utero, affect how the horse reacts to stressors. It’s important to remember that horses are individuals, and those unique personalities are formed in the womb during gestation.

Training & Feeding

While horses don’t “breed themselves”, we can learn a lot about a horse by observing its interactions with people and how it responds to specific stresses.

How Can You Prevent Or Minimize Stress in Horses

How Can You Prevent Or Minimize Stress in Horses?

Your horse’s comfort, health, and productivity depend on your ability to recognize and correct stressful situations in your life or in the training arena. Show Your Support – When it comes to your horse, only you can prevent stress. If your horse is a flight animal and stressed by change or the pressure of competition, you may need to consider if competing is the right fit for your horse. When it comes to your horse, only you can prevent stress. If your horse is a flight animal and stressed by change or the pressure of competition, you may need to consider if competing is the right fit for your horse.

Take a break and let the horse have a good sniff or nap. As a trainer, I often find that letting a horse take a few minutes to breathe and take a breather often helps them feel better and calm down. It might be tempting to try and help the horse through the situation, but when they are already feeling stressed and scared, this only makes the situation worse. Notice the calming effect your horse’s body language has on you. Notice what your horse is saying to you through their body language, and communicate back with them using a calm and reassuring tone of voice.

What Are The Stressors?

Stressors are any environmental or social changes that are not immediately, immediately rewarding to the horse. To keep the horse safe and healthy, trainers and owners should provide opportunities for horses to deal with these stressors on their own terms. At the same time, owners and trainers should also provide opportunities to learn and adapt to new situations.

Each of these stressors may cause a horse to react in one of three ways: they may become distracted, flee, or fight.  When a horse becomes distracted, he may develop a thought pattern, such as “I’ve got to deal with this, I’m just not going to make a lot of progress if I keep thinking about it.”

The most common stressors in horses are diet and housing conditions, not necessarily negative interactions with other horses or the unfamiliar animals in their environment. When a horse is confined in a small or confined space for a long period of time, it may become depressed and feel unwanted.

This is often called stall rest. Another example of a stressful situation is when a horse is repeatedly exposed to a dog or another potentially harmful animal, causing them to experience fear and anxiety. Some horses who experience chronic stress may exhibit physical symptoms, such as weight loss, colic, anemia or lethargy. But sometimes, stress symptoms can be more subtle, such as difficulty rising from a resting position.

Do Horses Get Stress?

Stress is generally defined as anything that causes the body to react to stimuli in a way that promotes survival, health, reproduction or a safe, comfortable, protected living situation. Of course, horses aren’t immune to stress, but they often cope with stress more effectively than other animals and sometimes require far less of it than humans do. However, horses also experience stress because they have been trained or socialized to react to certain situations in a certain way — like when we walk by a dog or raise our hand during a scary situation.

Humans aren’t the only animals to experience stress. Horses, like many other species, are known to experience stress — often as a result of physical, psychological, or social situations — when necessary to avoid danger. However, unlike humans, horses do not have specific categories of stress to differentiate the kinds of stress that are expected. Instead, stress is the result of changes in an animal’s internal physical and emotional states that happen over a period of time.

Some horses exhibit stress as a response to psychological challenges, such as situations in which they are unable to meet their human owner’s expectations. Other horses experience stress as a reaction to environmental challenges, such as periods of exposure to cold weather or high levels of humidity.


Due to the impacts of stresses that their environment or training can cause, horses can display different signs of stress throughout the day, which can range from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks. While not all stress is harmful or harmful to the horse, it is important for owners to be aware of the signs and symptoms and provide guidance and care to a horse who is showing signs of stress. Remember that the best way to reduce stress in your horse is to provide a safe, structured, and positive environment that allows your horse to perform their best.

While there are various causes of stress, most of them are controllable. However, when stress is left unaddressed, it can damage horses physically or mentally. Fortunately, many stressors can be modified or avoided to prevent negative effects.

Here’s a look at some of the most common causes and how to handle them in a way that’s good for your horse and for the pasture. Crowding can also cause stress, so if your horse lives in a small herd, consider moving to a larger pasture. If you’ve added another horse to the herd, make sure the new horse gets along with everyone else and that he’s socialized with the horses in the pasture.

I trust you enjoyed this article about the Causes And Effects Of Stress In Horses. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.




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