8 Ways to De-Stress Your Horse
Most of us know what it’s like to feel stressed. Our heart might race, our palms may sweat, and our thinking can become clouded. Unfortunately, in our modern day, crazy-busy society, stress has become a well known fact of life. And left unchecked, stress can increase the risk of many health problems including heart disease, GI issues, headaches, obesity, and depression.
But we’re not the only ones who experience stress. Whether we’re aware of it or not, horses are commonly affected as well. And just like us, chronic stress can lead to health problems for them.
As I previously wrote about in this blog post, here are some common causes of stress in horses:
- Poor diet;
- Heavy exercise;
- Injury/ pain;
- Environmental toxins; and
- Social environment.
Sometimes, stress can’t be avoided, such as in the case of an injury, during transport, or bringing a horse into a new environment. Performance horses likely experience the most stress. But the good news is that there are a number of ways you can make your horse’s life better. Here are eight ways to de-stress your horse:
1.) Always Provide Access to Forage. With the exception of short transport, and of course, during exercise or performance, hay or grass should always be available to your horse. Going even three hours without food puts horses at higher risk for digestive upset (including colic and gastric ulcers). Grazing is how horses naturally spend the majority of their day, so mimicking this behavior is a natural stress reducer. For horses not on pasture, I highly recommend using a slow feed hay net.
2.) Give Your Horse a Buddy. Living alone can be a constant source of stress for horses, so I recommend giving them at least one buddy to live with. If keeping another horse isn’t feasible, a goat or other companion animal can work, too.
3.) Provide Regular Turnout. How do you feel when you take a walk or go work out at the gym? Pretty good, right? Exercise is a known stress-buster and it’s no different for horses. In fact, they need movement to thrive. Even if you only have a small acreage, you can create a track system (Paddock Paradise) which will allow your horses to move all day long.
4.) Employ Energy Work and/or Massage. If you’ve never had acupuncture, acupressure, or another form of energy work performed on yourself, you’re missing out! Many of these modalities not only improve physical health, but emotional health as well. For performance horses, I also recommend regular massage (which you can even learn to do yourself) to relieve muscle tension and stress.
5.) Keep a Consistent Schedule. This means feeding generally around the same times every day. A couple hours’ difference won’t likely be a problem, but skipping a feeding time because you’re too busy or constantly changing up turnout time to fit your schedule can definitely stress horses out.
6.) Monitor Noise Around Your Barn & Pasture. Horses can be quite sensitive to noise, so consider what sounds your horse may be regularly exposed to. Cars on a nearby highway, banging from a workshop, or a kennel full of constantly barking dogs can all be a source of stress (especially if it interferes with your horse’s sleeping habits).
But noise isn’t always a bad thing. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that some sounds, such as classical music, can have a soothing effect on horses and lower their cortisol levels. If your horse must be stalled for any period of time, you might try playing some classical music (not too loudly, of course). And FYI: Keeping other horses in a confined horse’s sight can also help to lower stress levels.
7.) Use Essential Oils or Flower Essences. Essential oils are known to help with emotional health and relaxation, and lavender is a great one for stress relief. You can allow your horse to smell the oil (aromatherapy) or place a drop or two on your horse’s forehead or poll. (See more here for using essential oils with horses.)
Flower Essences can be given internally and are great during stressful situations such as transport, loss of a pasture mate, or for generally anxious horses. The recommended dose is ten drops which can be added to a water bucket or treat. Many flower essences are available for stress relief, such as Bach Rescue Remedy, Star of Bethlehem, or Walnut.
8.) Manage Your Own Stress. As I stated above, horses are sensitive animals (though I might argue that most all animals are sensitive). They can definitely pick up human emotions, including stress. Have you ever been nervous on a horse, who in turn, became more nervous himself? It’s no different with stress. Therefore, it’s important to take care of ourselves first. That way we can better enjoy the time we spend with our horses and vice versa.
Sources and Further Reading