Horses also experience stress just like us humans. It’s often the result of changes in their lifestyle or environment. They can experience it from various factors like interactions with other horses, work, training or changes in their feeding schedule.
In some situations, stress is a helpful reaction that allows our lovely companions to cope. Just as people handle stressful situations differently, some horses can adapt easily, while other horses may struggle to manage stress.
It can also cause anxiousness and health issues like colic and gastric ulcer. A stressed horse may exhibit a lack of interest in food and will begin to lose weight. It can be a result of not having a regular well-balanced diet or even if your horses are fed regularly, they may still show a decreased appetite due to other stresses.
If your horses show any signs of stress, you need to take action immediately by identifying the cause. Then, making some lifestyle and environmental changes might be necessary to help them relieve that stress. For horses with laminitis, or laminitis prone horses such as those suffering from EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome), Cushing’s Disease, Insulin Resistance (IR), then stress is an even bigger concern as constant cortisol release can contribute to laminitis and poor hoof wall/coffin bone connection.
As a horse owner for 31 years, I’ve seen my horses struggle in some stressful situations and I’ve managed to learn some helpful ways to deal with it. Below are some tips on how you can help reduce stress in your horses.
Establishing a routine for horses is crucial to their physical and mental health. It’s one of the most critical steps all horse owners need to consider to keep your horses in tip-top condition.
Having a routine in place creates a situation where your horse knows what to expect during the day. Think about your daily life schedule and allot time to feed, groom, ride, and do the other tasks to fulfil your horse's basic needs.
We’ve written a great article previously about the rules in feeding horses. It might also give you some valuable tips.
Feeding and checking on the water and food supply, for instance, can be done first in the morning. You can also spend some time in the afternoon doing their exercise routine. In summer, it is ideal to check on water supply at the end of the day too, just in case their water trough has stopped working, resulting in them having no water all night.
Always remember to be as consistent as possible for each task. If you aren’t around, it’s important to get someone to step in and take care of your horse's needs.
When horses don’t have constant access to hay, they get bored quickly. Boredom can lead to stress and anxiousness. This is why providing them continuous access to hay throughout the day is really important. By feeding your horses frequently, you help decrease the stress of waiting for their next meal and reduce boredom by doubling the time it takes for them to eat.
Using slow feeders like the GutzBusta® Hay Nets is really helpful as it allows your horses to eat strands of hay at once, focusing more on their food and becoming more satisfied with something in their stomach all of the time.
Hay nets for horses are also recommended by veterinarians to reduce the incidence of colic, stomach ulcers, and stable vices, and help reduce obesity. A slow feed hay net can significantly regulate the amount of hay consumption that results in better body weight.
Horses are naturally very active creatures. They solely rely on movement to keep their circulation working properly. Horses that do not move enough and kept in stables for an extended period are more prone to small airway inflammation. They can also develop stereotypical behaviours like cribbing, wind sucking, box walking and weaving.
Horses are healthiest and happiest outdoors. To avoid developing these stress-related behaviours, they need to have lots of turnout time every day. You need to keep things as natural as possible, ensuring they’re getting a forage-based diet and being able to move around to explore their surroundings.
Having regular exercise also helps in reducing stress and boredom. Give your horses ample space where they can wander and stay active. This will also help them maintain a healthy weight and reduce the burden on their feet at the same time.
Horses are herd animals, and they need companions. They feel safer in a location where they have their own kind to live with.
Equines that are kept with other horses are less bored and less likely to indulge in stereotypical habits. Having companions also offers an opportunity for foals to learn the etiquette of living in a herd.
However, according to the British Horse Society, “when introducing horses to a new group, it is strongly advised, where possible, to turn out the new arrival in an adjacent paddock for a few days so the horses can safely meet their new herd member.” This of course needs to be done with safe fencing.
It’s also important to keep in mind that horses should be treated as individuals. You need to observe any signs of bullying and ensure it doesn’t have any negative effect on their health. If a horse is getting particularly bullied by another, then it is best to separate them from the bully as just like us, this is another form of stress.
As a horse owner, you need to be responsible for taking care of their overall health to keep them as stress-free as possible. Let’s face it, domestication itself is a stress, so being mindful of reducing stress as much as possible is paramount to having happy, healthy horses.
Keeping your horses in their best shape starts with preventive health care. This includes routine veterinary care for vaccinations, dental care, grooming and hoof care.
Vaccination is one of the most important components of preventive medicine. Getting your horses vaccinated stimulates their immune system against infection. Vaccines are given to equines as the core defence against certain infectious illnesses and viruses. It is also important to recognise that any medication can cause stress and reactions in some animals and the odd case of laminitis has happened post-vaccination. So it would be ideal to factor this into consideration when doing your routine vaccinations and not do them at a time of maximum stress. I personally had this happen back in my trimming days after a client's horse had the Equine Influenza vaccine and suffered anaphylaxis.
Horses teeth change and grow over time. This is why it’s also essential to do a dental checkup at least once or twice a year. Your veterinarian or equine dentist will check inside the mouth and have their teeth floated. Floating is the practice of gently filing away sharp edges or hooks that may form on the edges of the teeth.
There are some dentists that also use power tools and it is up to the individual to research and learn what might suit them and their individual horse. Plus, it also depends on availability in your area of an equine dentist. I personally had an old horse that was sedated by an equine dentist for use with power tools and she nearly collapsed and died from this sedation, so from there on her teeth were floated. Just like us, every animal is an individual and what might suit the majority, may not suit a minority.
Worming is another area that needs to be part of the regular routine of your equine. Gone are the days of worming routinely every 6 weeks to 3 months. It’s something that needs attention as a high worm burden can make a horse seriously unwell and stressed. Latest health advice is to do fecal egg counts to see what the actual worm burden is and identify which particular worms are present so that you can make an informed decision on which de-worming paste will best suit your horse.
Always make sure you’re taking your horses for regular health exams. If they show any signs of stress-related health problems, talk to your vet immediately.
While stress is one thing that we can’t avoid, it’s our responsibility to make our horses’ lives as pleasant and comfortable as possible. By recognising the causes and effects of stress in horses, and implementing the tips mentioned above, you can help them overcome anxiety that could help improve their lives.