Stress in Horses
One thing I’ve been working on lately is reducing stress in my life. Of course this is often easier said than done but I’m a firm believer in this quote:
Speaking from my own experience, I think we often become stressed because of how we react to situations, including our negative thoughts about what may have occurred. It can be a difficult habit to change, but it’s one worth working on. (By the way, yoga really helps!)
Most of us know that too much stress is just plain bad for us. It can affect many different things, including our heart, our muscles, our immune system, our mental health, and basically our overall well-being.
For example, a few weeks ago, I came down with the flu for perhaps only the second time ever in my entire life. And what was going on in my life the day I got sick? I was feeling stressed (and not remembering the aforementioned quote!)
I was trying to get my house clean because friends were coming in from out-of-state and I was also trying to get ready for the upcoming Pete Ramey workshop. And that particular morning, my four-year-old daughter opened a big package UPS had brought and dumped the styrofoam peanuts all over the living room. They stuck to her clothes and hair, the carpet, the furniture, and pretty much anything else with which they came in contact.
I have no one but myself to blame, but I lost it when I looked over the balcony and saw this mess. I didn’t have time to deal with it the moment and you probably know how four-year-olds are when it comes to cleaning up. . .
Not even an hour later, I felt the first signs of the flu coming on (although I didn’t know it was the flu at first). My reaction to what had happened affected my whole body and this was likely just the window of opportunity the flu bug had been looking for. It just marched right on in.
But the purpose of this post isn’t to talk about me getting the flu. . . What I really want to discuss is stress in horses–what causes it, how it affects them, and most importantly, how we can make a difference.
Horses aren’t like us for the most part (thank goodness!) They tend to live in the present moment and don’t stew and fret over situations from the past. But they do still experience stress.
Some stress is normal and a part of everyday life for horses (such as bad weather), but much of it is caused by us–their caretakers. Even though we may have nothing but the best intentions for our equine friends, we often don’t allow them to live like horses and this, in turn, causes stress.
Here are a few other common causes of stress for horses:
- Poor diet;
- Heavy exercise;
- Injury/ pain;
- Environmental toxins; and
- Social environment.
How Stress Affects Horses
When horses experiences stress, their cortisol levels rise. If it’s just a short-term situation, the cortisol levels will return to normal fairly quickly. But when it’s chronic stress, cortisol levels stay elevated, and this creates a problem and can make horses sick.
An example that is similar to my flu story is called Shipping Fever. This is a respiratory illness that horses can develop during or right after a long trip when stress causes a suppression of the immune system.
Another very common condition brought on by chronic stress is gastric ulcers. In fact, it’s thought to affect the majority of performance horses. There are several reasons for this–but high-grain diets, lack of access to forage, confinement, and the stress of exercise and showing are all major factors.
Other issues that can be caused by chronic stress include:
- skin infections;
- behavioral changes;
- tense muscles;
- cribbing or weaving; and
- weight loss or gain.
Reducing Stress for Our Horses
Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but I think creating the most natural lifestyle possible is the key for healthy and non-stressed horses. We have to think about how horses were designed to live.
Here are several ways you can help to reduce stress for your horses:
Provide continual access to forage: If you can make any change at all for your horses, I would place a very high priority on this. Lack of forage causes a great deal of stress for the horse! If you can’t turn your horses out on pasture, at least increase the frequency of hay feeding, or better yet, use slow feeders so they never run out of hay. And don’t forget about night time–just because you’re asleep doesn’t mean your horse is. They need to eat through the night as well (especially important if it’s cold outside).
Feed a forage-based diet: You might wonder what the heck this has to do with stress, but again it goes back to providing the most natural lifestyle possible. Horses’ digestive systems aren’t meant to digest large amounts of concentrates (grains) and doing so creates stress on the body. I highly recommend you look into feeding more forage and less concentrates–and yes, even for performance horses. (Forage-Only Diet for Performance Horses Evaluated)
Allow horses to live with a buddy, or even better yet, a herd: Horses are herd animals and crave social interaction. Please don’t make your horse live alone. Having a buddy or two to live with can go a long ways for their health. (See this post for more on the benefits of allowing horses to live as a herd.) If a horse must be separated for some reason, make sure he can see other horses at all times.
Turnout: I’ll just go ahead and say it. I’m not a fan of stalling horses. I know that many people board their horses, but please, try to find a way where they can have as much turnout time as possible. Of course, 24/7 is best, but if this can’t be managed, then any increase in turnout time will help.
Keep a Routine: I know this can be difficult with our hectic lifestyles, but try to feed your horses around the same time each day–especially if you feed a concentrate. If you need to make changes, do so slowly over an extended period of time. Our horses get used to being fed at certain times and sudden changes can create stress.
So the point of this post was to at least get you thinking. I know that some stress is inevitable both in our own lives and also in the lives of our horses, but I think it’s so important to recognize stressors and work to reduce or eliminate them. Our horses are worth it, aren’t they?
Sources and Further Reading