Top Tips To Reduce Stress For Your Horse
Managing your horse’s health can include reducing any stress or anxiety that they may experience. It’s important to understand that no two horses are the same and as their owner, you will come to recognize if your horse is not happy. Horses can be naturally fearful and certain breeds can demonstrate stress more than others, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians.
There are common signs that your horse could be stressed, which include, a loss of appetite, excessive sweating, kicking, tail swishing, flared nostrils and pawing. Recognizing that your horse is stressed and understanding what is causing their anxiety could help to improve your horse’s quality of life.
Living in a herd is one way to keep your horse happy, but it’s also important that your horse has enough space to be by himself if he wants to be. At many livery yards, horses are turned out into groups, which if given the choice, your horse might not want to be part of.
Making sure your horse is turned out into a big enough space can ensure that he has social contact, but also can have his own space if needed. If, with this in mind, you don’t believe the yard or routine your horse currently has suited him, moving to a different environment could be what he needs to reduce his stress.
Horse shows are exciting events that competitive equestrians count the days toward on their calendars. We readily await the chance to get off the farm and showcase our horses and our skills in the show ring or pen. For our horses, though, shows can be sources of anxiety and stress.
While we can’t eliminate stress from show environments completely, we can take steps to minimize it for horse welfare and human safety. Carissa Wickens, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension equine specialist in the University of Florida’s Department of Animal Sciences, in Gainesville, recommended ways to do just that.
From a welfare perspective, owners should be concerned about their horses experiencing severe acute stress or, worse, chronic stress. While some stress is normal and acceptable, said Wickens, “if we continue to show without doing our part to acclimate our horses in an effort to minimize stress, chronic or long-term stress could occur, potentially leading to detrimental effects related to health,” such as reduced immune function and gastric ulceration.
Stressed horses, who are often more reactive and aroused at competitive events, might also misbehave, posing a safety risk to themselves and their handlers, she said. On the far end of the spectrum, the chronically stressed horse might even shut down mentally.
“Stress over time might be manifested not as bad behaviour but horses becoming withdrawn and not performing as well,” Wickens explained. “So in addition to not feeling as well as they could, horses can also experience learned helplessness, where they can’t escape that stressful and fearful environment. That’s extreme, but we do have to be careful. Observing how our horses are responding to the show environment is very important.”
Horses are built to run—more specifically, to run away from danger. It is their natural flight instinct that makes them hyperaware of their surroundings and ready, if necessary, to escape predators. However, humans have domesticated horses and placed them in a living environment and daily routine that hardly resembles what nature intended.
This has inevitably changed the way horses respond to stressful situations because they cannot simply run away. The living part of their lives in a stall, relying on humans for most of their nutrition and working as riding or competition horses have also introduced stress factors that horses in the wild never experience.
Signs Your Horse Is Stressed
- Hooves and legs quiver or tremble
- Sweating is excessive and extreme
- Ear ticks and nostrils flare
- Jaw tremors and tongue lies against the palate
- Head twitches
- Tail whips back
- Harness become tight and/or creaky
- Head or neck is elevated
- Back or hind leg twitches
- They are more cautious of new things or places, especially if you are moving them to a new environment.
When this occurs, don’t force your horse to do anything or take any action, wait until they are calm again. In this way, they will slowly learn to become more trusting and relaxed in new situations. This kind of behaviour can often be seen in colts and foals when they are a bit nervous and just doing everything out of fear and habit.
Loss of appetite – Horses can be naturally thin and can lose weight if they are stressed and uncomfortable. Swallowing becomes difficult, so the horse won’t eat and will drink less water. Sudden weight loss also occurs, usually in the front legs.
Frequent urination – Any colic requires frequent defecation. Any change in your horse’s routine which causes stress or discomfort will cause changes to their schedule, meaning they may not go to the toilet enough. This can lead to frequent urination.
Endless kicking – Horses are generally very relaxed animals, so normally just a small kick is all they require to show their affection and wellbeing. Sometimes, they are simply nervous and you can get that feeling just from riding them.
Why Do Horses Become Stressed?
Stress is a natural response for all animals and when the stresses come on, it can trigger a reaction in the nervous system. When an animal is in a stressful situation, such as a foreign environment, for example, they tend to try to protect themselves from possible harm, usually by cowering, cringing, stamping their feet, or sometimes by getting up and trying to escape.
These behaviours are used to keep themselves safe and can be known as instinctive behaviours. When horses are in situations that are not familiar to them such as being in a stable, not being able to eat a favourite treat, or being kept in a small space, they can become stressed and anxious, which can often be difficult to spot as they look as calm as the next horse.
Stress in horses can occur due to changes in their environment, their feelings of insecurity and the unknown and also if they are asked to do things they are not ready to do, such as working in a team or being led on the road. Many horses are also frightened by unfamiliar sights or sounds and being trained to work with these can cause stress.
Research has shown that the most common stress-causing things for horses are pain and injury, especially when the horse is frightened or upset. It’s important to understand the cause of the stress, which could be caused by a change in their environment such as moving to a new stable, being ridden by someone other than their regular handler, travelling or going out in traffic.
How To Improve Your Horse’s Quality Of Life
Many owners struggle to come to terms with the idea that their horse is anxious or stressed. Often, they want their horse to be able to perform at his best and not experience discomfort, but the same is not true of all horses. Certain horses take their job of working in a competitive sport and in the course of doing that, experience prolonged periods of discomfort.
Even a typical day of being around humans could result in discomfort and in some cases, pain. These horses can become anxious and stressed from the amount of attention, work and stress that they are exposed to, and that can manifest in behaviours, such as walking through mud puddles, shying at strangers and horses walking on top of them.
- Learn to recognize if your horse is stressed or anxious.
- Try changing your schedule so that you are with your horse more often.
- If you are having to leave your horse in the yard, it could be caused by the stress of them being left for long periods of time without you.
- If your horse seems to be shut away in a stable with its head down, this could be because they are uncomfortable. Check their bedding and make sure they have enough hay and water.
- It’s important to be calm and give your horse the time and space that they need.
- Try moving into their space to let them know you’re there if they can’t see you.
- Make sure you don’t rush or get frustrated when you walk into their space, as they may become anxious.
- Distract your horse by engaging with them or playing games.
Understanding What Stress Looks Like
Stress is most commonly observed when a horse is in a confined space, such as a stable, box or stall. The different states that they could be in could be separated into negative, positive and neutral. Negative stress would be when your horse is stressed and the cue for this is a lack of or shortened nostrils and excessive sweating.
For positive stress, the behaviour exhibited would be shortened nostrils and no sweat, whereas the response for a neutral state is the same with positive stress.
For negative or neutral stress, there is no issue with the horse’s breathing but these states can cause a change in eating behaviour. For stress management, it is important to understand what stress is and how it is produced and its impact.
It is important to know your horse’s stress level. Different breeds have different stress triggers and also different means of showing stress. For example, horses can visibly show stress by pawing, shying, giving a tense stare, pawing, pulling on their bridle or tightening their mouth. As a horse owner, it is important to know how to recognize when your horse is showing signs of stress and use these signs to help improve your horse’s health and welfare. Signs of stress can include:
- Pawing or kicking. Pawing or kicking is the horse trying to release stress by rubbing its hooves.
- Flaring nostrils. Flaring nostrils shows that the horse is experiencing stress and is trying to release it.
- Teeth grinding. This is when your horse shows signs of stress.
How To Reduce A Stressed Horse's Anxiety
If you notice a horse showing any of the signs of stress then taking a closer look at the horse's diet is a good place to start. With different breeds showing differing levels of stress, it is important to speak with your local equine vet to discuss which diet is most suitable for your horse's body type, health and temperament.
Check your horse's teeth for any worn or protruding teeth and make sure they are looking clean and smooth. Once you've checked the horse's teeth, look for any abnormalities such as swollen gums and overgrown ears or nostrils. If any of these signs are present, they are usually caused by a simple infection. Give your horse medicine, often sold as ‘syringes' or tablets and dissolve in their water. Then feed your horse.
Monitor Your Horse's Temperature
While overheating may seem a huge cause for concern, this is often a symptom of stress rather than a direct cause of it. If a horse is warm, your instinct will be to cool the animal down, however cooling down may cause your horse to feel anxious, confused and even disorientated. One method that you could consider is to collect their temperature while the horse is relaxed.
Clipping the horse’s legs and watching their temperature in a thermometer, you could see how their temperature changes throughout the day. By monitoring their temperature throughout the day, it is possible to spot a pattern in their comfort and wellbeing. A horse that is sweating excessively can often be too hot.
How To Calm A Nervous Horse
Stress in horses is thought to be linked to the nervous system, which operates at a higher frequency than that of humans. Certain horses, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians, are more easily stressed and some breeds can demonstrate greater nervousness than others. Watch out for these common signs of stress in your horse, which may be indicative of a neurological problem.
Head lowering – This is where the horse lowers their head, following the movement of the back. It is an expression of submission and submission can be an indication of poor confidence.
Ears flaring – The ears are the horse’s ears. The ears should stay relaxed and the horse shouldn’t try to flatten them out.
Tail swishing – The tail is the animal’s stress indicator, and is a sign that they feel uncomfortable or anxious.
If your horse is anxious, if the lead rope is grabbed, it may get very tight, causing a lot of pain and possible injury to your horse. Make sure that the rope stays slack, keep your hand at a slight angle and when your horse feels more comfortable, adjust the slack in the lead rope.
If you are preparing to ride, it’s a good idea to take your horse for a walk or play in the field to help reduce their anxiety. Your horse will learn to associate walking or working in your presence with a lack of anxiety.
Oxytocin is a hormone released when your horse is resting and may cause your horse to become calm or happy.
What Triggers Stress In Horses?
When their mental health is affected by stress, your horse may become reactive or anxious. It’s important to understand why your horse is stressed and work to reduce or remove any potential triggers to improve their welfare. Feeding problems may have been a result of a change in environment, a new farrier or owner or it could simply be too much food.
All of these factors can cause horses to experience stress, so it is important to feed your horse in a controlled way that reduces this behaviour. Generally, most horses feed for 2-3 hours before they move on, so make sure they have eaten enough before they go out. In extreme cases, grazing your horse is the best way to relieve stress and promote weight gain.
When things are not going as they should be, for example, if the horse is for example fearful and unconfident and trying to find its way around in a new environment, or if the horse is anxious and is constantly being under social pressure, they can become stressed.
In general, stress can also be caused by the horse not being able to find somewhere to relieve themselves and the panic and fear they experience in this instance. For your horse to settle, it’s essential that they can concentrate on what you are doing. Some horses who feel anxious can become hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning their surroundings. Determine if your horse is bored and how you can improve their activity and help them have a better quality of life.
Top Tips To Reduce Stress
Talk with your horse’s keeper or stable keeper. It is important to have regular contact with your horse’s keeper to understand any issues that may be causing them stress. If your horse is in a large stable with many other horses then this can create a lot of stress, so don’t let them be kept in these situations for too long.
Use the enclosed riding arena or outdoor arenas when possible and if your horse is uncomfortable being in the indoor arena then place them in an outdoor arena, which provides a more natural environment. Ensure there is a quiet, natural area to feed your horse. Horses are anxious by nature so having a bucket of feed in a quiet, natural area can help.
Recognize your horse's response to stress – some horses are likely to display stress because they are very reactive and quick to respond to what is around them. Other horses may look less stressed, but have difficulty coping with new things.
Understand why your horse is stressed. If your horse appears nervous, it could be due to their age or something they have learned from experience or because they have a different level of experience from other horses in their group. If they appear stressed out and showing stress signs, make it a priority to get to the root cause of why they are stressed and this could involve their diet, their behaviour or the way they are ridden.
Effects Of Stress On Horses
The cortisol level of an animal is a good indicator of how stressed they are. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases during periods of high stress. Levels increase in response to a reduction in available nutrients, contact with predators, or for other specific reasons.
As cortisol levels increase, the fight or flight response is stimulated, reducing adrenaline, fight or flight hormones, which reduce the effectiveness of these hormones to restore homeostasis and blood pressure. The change in cortisol level in the blood of an animal can also lead to muscle stiffness, anxiety, depression, heart rate and breathing rate, as well as changes to their temperament.
Stress can cause a horse to become anxious, very fearful and have feelings of pain. This all can affect your horse’s performance and lead to increased illness or lameness. According to authors at The Royal Veterinary College, ‘Chronic stress can lower the animals’ immune system, and the resulting anemia, which can reduce their survival chances if injured, can negatively impact a horse’s quality of life.
You can work with your horse to reduce its stress levels. Exposure therapy can be very effective in reducing the fear and anxiety of a horse. One example of this is providing a horse with toys that will be a trigger for your horse to be stressed.
According to studies, the good quality of life of your horse can be measured by their ability to eat and walk comfortably and having a healthy weight. It’s important to maintain their movement and mental health, but it can be rewarding for both you and your horse.
It’s also important to remember that if you have an ‘over the top’ horse with a big personality that can be tough to handle, but that’s what makes them so lovable. Stress and anxiety in horses can have a huge impact on their health and the quality of their life. You as their owner can play a crucial role in managing and reducing their anxiety, as your horse’s behaviour can change to reduce their stress levels.
I trust you enjoyed this article about the Top Tips To Reduce Stress For Your Horse. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.
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