Your horse is getting sweaty and his eyes are widening. You can nearly feel his heart exploding out of his chest as he paces in his stall. Clearly he’s stressed about something. You might be tempted to pop him some of your Xanax, send him on a spa weekend and never ask anything difficult of him again, but there’s a better way to deal with his stress.
“A major precipitator of stress in all animals is unpredictability — the novelty of it,” says Dr. Michael Cockram, chair in animal welfare and professor in the Department of Health Management at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College. He’s conducted research on the effects of management practices on animal welfare, including horses, and how stress can be tamed. “The way to try to avoid unnecessary stress is to make the horse’s life relatively predictable. And not subject it to sudden noises and novel things that the animal feels it cannot control.”
Sounds simple, right? But why do we even need to reduce stress in horses? I mean, your boss is always on your case and stresses you out, but you’re hanging in there just fine, right? Maybe. But stress can take its toll on horses’ bodies.
Why Stress Is Bad
Sudden, acute stressful situations for horses can cause a rise in certain hormones that enable the “fight or flight” response that lets them evade predators or perceived threats (even if that modern-day threat manifests itself as plastic bags and late dinner). Those hormones charge the horse up, increasing the heart rate and diverting blood flow and glucose to the muscles, letting him get ready to rumble. “This is OK if it happens a few times,” says Dr. Cockram. “But if it happens repeatedly, it can be quite a drain on the physical and mental resources.”
Horses will adapt to most things given time and gentle introduction.
Stress can also result from long-term situations where the horse experiences improper handling, poor stall or field conditions or is getting too much exercise over a period of time. In these situations, a different hormone, cortisol, escalates, and over time can impair the horse’s immune system, inhibit muscle growth and decrease appetite. Even ill-fitting tack, angry pasture dynamics or having new barn workers can stress out a horse.
How to Recognize Stress
OK, so undue stress = bad.
Now you need to know how to recognize signs of stress in your horse. Signs include increased respiration and heart rates, vocalization, sweating, sometimes increased temperature and more agitated head and leg movements. And as time goes on, as mentioned before, reduced interest in eating or drinking. Horses have unique personalities though, so signs of stress can differ greatly.
“These stress responses can be quite useful if you want to maximize the exercise response of a horse in competition,” Dr. Cockram explains. “A bit of stress can be good. It’s not necessary to make horses’ lives [completely] stress-free. We want to make it as pleasant and comfortable as possible.”
How to Handle It
Remember, the basic idea of keeping your horse unstressed is to make his life predictable. What that means is, stick to a routine as much as you can. Feed and turn out on a regular schedule, and if new people are to care for or ride a particular horse, introduce the change gradually if possible. Introduce new types of tack or training exercises slowly as well so the horse gets acclimated.
“Horses will adapt to most things given time and gentle introduction,” Dr. Cockram says.
If your horse is the anxious type, introduce new trailers gradually on your property so he becomes comfortable with it in a familiar environment — before you have to go somewhere. When you are trailering, pair horses who are familiar with each other so they’re at ease. “Get the horse used to that vehicle, getting on and off, and then have a nice treat afterwards. That way you’re just trying to reduce the novel things that the animal is going to experience on a stressful sort of journey,” Dr. Cockram says.
When staying off property for a horse show or clinic, bring your own water if your horse is the more sensitive type, as some horses don’t drink as much with unfamiliar-tasting water (and always bring your own feed and hay).
A bit of stress can be good. It’s not necessary to make horses’ lives [completely] stress-free. We want to make it as pleasant and comfortable as possible.
Perhaps most importantly, make sure that the life you’re asking your horse to lead is what’s best suited for his personality regarding type and duration of exercise, among other care factors.
“Horses vary a lot in temperament. If you’re seeing signs of stress in your horse, you have to consider, well, are you doing the best things for that horse?”
So save the anxiety meds for yourself, make your horse’s life incredibly predictable – and watch his stress levels go down. Now if only your boss could do the same for you….