How You Can Help Your Horse If They Suffer From Stress
- By Horseland Online
- Jun 2, 2023
5 min read
Whether it’s a new job, meeting a deadline or speaking in public, we all know what it’s like to be stressed. Like us, horses can also feel the effects of stress. So, what is stress and why should we be concerned about it when it comes to the health and wellbeing of our horses?
What is stress?
Stress is a term that is used quite often to describe a range of responses to the environment. In basic terms, stress is a response to anything that is perceived as a threat, real or invented, to the normal balance and functioning of the body. Stress can be physical or psychological or have components of both. Physical stress comes from things like exercise, injury, illness or a change in the surrounding environment. Whereas psychological stress normally involves situations where an animal experiences fear or anxiety.
We often think of stress as something negative but not all stress is bad. For example, the “fight or flight” reaction is a natural stress response that has allowed horses to survive the threat of wild dogs, snakes and even the odd umbrella. In the short term, stress benefits the horse and allows it to learn about the world and adapt to it, whilst keeping them safe from threats. However, if stress becomes prolonged, it can cause some unwanted effects. Stress causes the body to release several hormones, most notably cortisol. When a horse becomes chronically stressed, stress hormones like cortisol rise and remain elevated. Elevated levels of cortisol in the body for a prolonged period can lead to negative impacts on health behaviour and performance.
Causes of stress in horses
Much like humans, each horse responds differently to stress. What one horse finds stressful may be a walk in the park for another. Whether a horse finds a situation stressful depends on their genetic makeup, previous experience, personality and how much control they have over their response to the situation or environment. Many things can trigger a stress response in horses, even something that we find mundane like walking into a stable, goes against a horse’s natural instincts and can be a cause for anxiety. It is impossible to list all the things that can cause stress in horses however, being aware of common causes of stress, you can help reduce the stress episodes in your horse’s life.
- Changes to social situations – horses are social animals, changes to how and who they interact with can be quite distressing to some horses. Whether it be isolation in a stall, removal of a stablemate, introduction of a new horse or being thrown into a yard with several unfamiliar horses at a competition, sudden changes to a horse’s social environment can be a cause of ongoing stress.
- Exercise and workload – any increase in workload is associated with stress. Some horses adapt quite quickly to the added requirements, but others can fail to cope, particularly if the workload or complexity of training increases suddenly. Performance horses and racehorses are more likely to develop chronic stress, particularly during the competition season, due to high intensity exercise and demanding routines that are coupled with travelling to new places with unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells.
- Diet – Horses are grazers. Feeding a horse once a day, not feeding an adequate amount of forage or feeding an unbalanced diet such as one high in concentrates can be a cause of chronic stress. This is particularly important for horses stabled for long periods of time as they do not have access to grazing pasture. Sudden changes in diet or to a feeding routine, which often happens during travel, competitions and show season, can also contribute to digestive stress.
- Transportation - Travelling on the road is not a natural activity for horses. The act of loading onto a float or truck by itself can be terrifying for some horses, particularly if they have had a bad experience or have never been transported before. Even seasoned show horses can still experience stress during travel. Several factors can cause anxiety for horses during transport including unfamiliar sights and sounds, being unbalanced, travelling alone or with a disliked stable mate, being confined and changes to feeding and drinking routines.
- Housing – the environment in which a horse is kept can significantly impact their stress levels. Horses that are confined to small yards or stables have an increase in stress when compared to horses kept in large paddocks. This can be exacerbated by things including long periods of isolation, poor ventilation, limited contact with other horses and boredom.
The downside of stress
Chronic stress can have some serious consequences if left unresolved. Several health conditions are associated with chronic stress in horses. Gastric ulceration is a condition that is commonly known to be associated with stress. However, other digestive issues, diarrhoea, weight loss, respiratory disease and decreased reproductive capability are also commonly seen in horses that are stressed. Chronically stressed horses are more likely to become sick or injured due to stress being a major cause of immune system suppression. Stress hormones particularly cortisol, prevent or limit the immune response resulting in longer healing and recovery times and an increased likelihood of secondary infections.
Stress can also impact the behaviour of a horse. You may notice a change in your horse’s personality when they are stressed. Horses may also display “conflict behaviours” to express anxiety or fear. This can include bucking, refusing to move forward, running backwards, shying or pulling the reins from your hands. These behaviours can also be a result of pain or discomfort and should not be dismissed as bad behaviour. Development of stereotypic behaviours such as box walking, weaving, wind sucking, crib biting and head bobbing may also occur during times of stress as a coping mechanism for horses. These can become long term behaviours that increase when horses are stressed.
Although stress is not the only cause of the above-mentioned issues, it is often overlooked as a possible contributing factor when a diagnosis is being explored. Stress can manifest in many ways in horses and should always be a consideration when your horse is not quite themselves.
First you need to determine what signals your horse gives when they are stressed then you can consider what you can change in their environment to decrease or eliminate that stress. All too often we attribute human wants and emotions to horses and forget that they have different needs and requirements to us. By understanding the basic needs of horses in their management, socialisation, training and environment we can help reduce unnecessary stress. Here are a few simple options to help reduce stress:
- Consistency – horses like a routine. Try to stick to a reliable daily routine even during competitions or travelling.
- Exercise – ensure your horse is not being overworked or being asked to perform tasks that are above their ability. Try to keep exercise to a regular consistent routine and gradually build complexity and intensity.
- Diet - feed a balanced diet with a large proportion of forage over several meals. If you can only feed twice a day, implement slow or activity feeders to slow down how quickly horses can eat a meal. Always ensure access to plenty of clean fresh water.
- Socialisation – monitor how and who your horse interacts with. If they seem stressed by a particular horse, try to rearrange horses or provide areas where they can spend time away from them. Avoid isolating horses from contact with other horses, use grates where possible between stables rather than panelling.
- Increase grazing/turn out time – very important for stable kept horses. Allowing a horse to graze outside whilst on lead can help reduce digestive stress and boredom/frustration.
- Travelling – it starts with loading, ensure this is as stress free and positive as possible. Try to keep the ride smooth and allow for frequent stops for feed, water and a walk around. Keep as much as you can as close as possible to your normal routine when away from home.
If you think your horse may already be suffering from chronic stress, ask your veterinarian to perform a full physical exam. There may be some underlying health or pain issues that are contributing to their stress. Keep up to date with preventative management such as vaccination, worming, dentist and farrier visits to reduce the risk of developing other health problems.
Supporting a horse during times of stress
Horses are generally quite adaptive and can habituate to stressful situations if given enough time and consideration. There are times however when stress cannot be avoided and may even be required short term to benefit a horse (i.e., stabling after injury). If stress cannot be avoided, there are things you can do to help support your horse.
Be your horse’s Zen – It’s easy to get upset and frustrated when your horse is not behaving as you’d like them to. But remember that on most occasions a horse is acting out because they are afraid or anxious. In these situations, respect your horse’s fear and don’t add to it by losing your cool. Your horse needs to feel safe so be calm, be clear and be consistent in your own behaviour.
- Calming exercises – practice calming and settling your horse at home when they are a little tense or distracted. It is up to you to find out what works best for your horse. Some horses may need to go for a walk, others may relax when being groomed, whilst others may need to be given a task to distract them. Practise these exercises at home when your horse is only a little worked up so that they are more effective when it matters.
- Support a healthy gut – whilst providing a balanced diet and access to plenty of forage goes a long way to supporting a healthy gut, during stressful periods supplementing your horse with an extra boost from gut supplements can be beneficial. Gut supplements that contain ingredients to aid digestion, buffer stomach acid and that provide support for healthy gut microbiota, can help to maintain a healthy digestive system even when horses are stressed.
- Calming supplements – there has been some research to suggest that nutritional supplements can help reduce the stress response for horses. Whilst the research is still in its infancy, there are many products on the market to choose from. Ensure to choose a product that is from a reputable company and that is manufactured to high quality standards. Finding a product that helps support your horse during times of stress can be invaluable and help reduce the impact stress has long term.
Horseland offers a range of nutritional supplements to help support your horse during times of stress. Whether it’s providing extra support for your horse’s gut with Horseland Gut Wellbeing Powder or helping to keep them relaxed and healthy with Horseland Relax Gel or Horseland Relax Powder our range of products can be used leading up to a stressful situation and as ongoing support as required.