Is Your Horse Stressed Out?
When I think about being stressed out, that alone can stress me out. Horses are no different and face stressors of their own. Our job is to recognize that our horses are stressed and decide what to do about it, while remembering that no horse, or human, can have a stress-free life. Stress is key to survival, especially for a horse who is ruled by the fight or flight way to existing.
So how do we notice stress in our horses? These are some glaringly outward signs of stress that you might see:
- Please keep in mind that these outward signs of stress are usually part of a much larger picture. Some horses exhibit these signs because of other reasons than stress, so take all of his body language and situation in. Notice a lot of prancing and tail flagging at a show? There’s a lot to see and take in and get used to. See some prancing and tail flagging at home in the pasture with buddies? Likely just playing.
- Pawing. Some horses paw for attention in the cross ties, some paw if they are agitated and starting to feel the need to get out of dodge. For ideas on how to help the horse that paws, read this!
- Kicking out. This might be more of vice, like stall kicking, or it could be more like a horse willing to chop his way out of a situation.
- Sweating when it’s not appropriate. Most of us have probably seen the horse that is drippy when all of his buddies are bone dry. There’s nothing like a good panic to create a sweaty horse.
- Frequent defecation. Sure, horses poop about 50 lbs. of manure a day. But when they let it all go in a short amount of time? Stress, for sure.
- Ears flicking more frequently. This is a horse that’s acutely aware of what’s going on around him. Pair this with a raised neck and tense muscles and you likely have a stressed-out horse. Or maybe he’s just paying attention? You get to be the detective on this one.
- Wide-open eyes. Seeing a lot of sclera? This could be your horse’s natural state, or his wide-open eyes are telling you he’s about to be eaten. Often seen with the flicking tail, raised hackles, and tail that is turning into a flag.
This one is always on the lookout!
- Inability to stand still. Just a subtle way of saying that they would rather be anywhere than where they are. Or they are just wiggling around because they are ticklish or need to you groom another area.
- Calling and whinnying excessively. You can tell the difference between a nicker that says “feed me” and the whinny that says “I’m going to perish imminently”.
- Raised tail. This flagging of your horse’s tail, or in some cases, your horse using his tail as a hat, often indicates fun or stress.
- Flared nostrils. Absolutely possible that your horse is actually the big bad wolf, or he’s taking in all of the sounds, has an elevated respiratory rate, and is about to snort the warning to all horses in the vicinity.
- Elevated heart rate. This sign of stress is usually not super obvious. Some horses pound out a heartbeat when they are scared to the extent you can feel it with your legs. But an elevated heart rate at rest tells you something is wrong – likely pain. It’s beyond easy to take your horse’s heart rate – read this for deets!
- Being spooky. Every horse on the planet can spook. It’s their very essence. This is typically a fleeting moment of stress, and most horses can chill out. We hope.
- Tail swishing. Yup, a horse swishing his tail can mean a lot of things. Flies, agitation, pain, and even just habit.
More signs that your horse has stress
- Stable vices. These vices, like cribbing and weaving and stall kicking, are often signs of boredom and stress. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about how and why horses develop these habits, but we know that many of the things we can do for stress are similar to how we can help curb vices.
- Lackluster performance under saddle. This is the broadest and most difficult thing to quantify when it comes to horses. I would say that trends over time are a good way to track this. At the same time, we get used to things over time and nothing starts to stand out.
- Subtle changes in his lifestyle. Do your horse’s usual quirks and behaviors seem to be morphing? Again, not so easy to quantify, so look for trends. A horse that always used to love being groomed and now dislikes it, or trotting in from the pasture has turned into ignoring you, or the horse that loved trails but now resists adventuring out are some instances to look out for.
Excessive body weight means stress for horses.
- Less than ideal body score and coat condition. A horse’s overall weight and health is a good indication of a horse’s stress level. And, a horse that is underweight or a hard keeper, or is overweight, can stress out his body. It’s a case of “chicken first or egg first”.
- Within the category of overall health, take into account any medical or diet issues your horse has. Horses with dental or soundness issues can have pain with every bite or step. Previous injuries might also flare up, and even these little daily annoyances add up. There’s probably not a creature on the planet that doesn’t have some sort of something going on, so figure out how much this contributes to your horse’s daily stress level.
What causes a horse to be stressed?
- Sometimes a stressed horse is just at the mercy of his genetics. Sometimes it’s a flash in the pan moment of being spooked, and sometimes it’s long-term stressors that take a toll over time.
Stressors for horses often involve their immediate environment. They do live in the present moment, after all.
- Can they see their friends and interact with them?
- Do they have adequate turnout and freedom to move?
- Are they able to keep some sort of chewing action going on as long as possible?
- Are they sound?
- How active are the imaginary goblins that live in the trees?
- What about healthy?
- Does their tack fit?
- Is their exercise program appropriate for their fitness level?
- How regular is their daily routine?
- How much travel is in your horse’s life?
How does science measure a horse’s stress level? And what does cortisol have to do with it?
- Let’s imagine something has spooked your horse, or his buddy has just left him in the field to go be groomed. Your horse’s body will release catecholamines, namely epinephrine and norepinephrine. These catecholamines act on your horse to increase his heart rate, raise his blood pressure, and move more air at a faster rate through his lungs. I think we are all familiar with what this looks like from the outside. This allows your horse to get the heck out of the area.
- If the stressful situation continues, or turns into a chronic stress situation, your horse’s brain is activated. The hypothalamus gets involved and releases corticotropin releasing factor, which then tells the pituitary gland to make more adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This may sound familiar, as ACTH is a major indicator of Cushing’s and highly involved in the problems with Cushing’s.
- Getting back to your horse…the ACTH from the pituitary gland then tells the adrenal glands to pump out some cortisol. Cortisol is a primary indicator of stress. In broad sweeping terms, cortisol function as a hormone is to help relieve stress by giving your horse a boost in metabolism. This gives him energy, which will allow his escape from whatever stressor is coming at him. Because horses are more inclined to flight than to fight.
- BUT BUT BUT…everything in moderation, right? That includes cortisol. If your horse is under constant stress, even a low level of stress, his body’s cortisol levels can be bad for his health. This can manifest itself into ulcers, behavior issues, aggression, problems with digestion and colic, and more.
- In the case of measuring stress and cortisol levels of the horse for a scientific study, most research can be tracked using the cortisol levels of saliva, although some studies might measure cortisol levels in blood.
Help the wigged out horse
- First – start to notice when your horse has obvious stress. This will give you clues as to the bigger stressors he may be facing. For example, if you notice he’s stressed out when he’s in the arena alone, he might also be facing long term stress when he’s in the barn or away from his herd.
- You may also notice that he’s stressed out when you are saddling him. He flinches and swishes his tail. Is this his way of saying he would rather be eating, or his way of saying he’s having stress about being ridden. Does his saddle fit? Is he sound and willing to work? Is his work level fair?
- Address medical, dental, and soundness issues. Your vet is definitely a person to loop in on this very broad topic.
- Ask yourself if your horse’s stress is coming from you? I’ve known more than one horse that would get tense and irritated when the people around are stressed out. Horses can be mirror reflections of ourselves, and in that way are great barometers of our own need to calm the bleep down.
- I’ve also known lots of horses that are wildly influenced by their person’s breathing. This article has some great breathing techniques that make everything better. Your horse will notice, too.
- You have to narrow down any root causes that might be stressing your horse out. Notice the situations and environments which cause him stress. Is it sound that bothers or helps him? What about being able to see more of the property? What about in the trailer? Then try some things to help him out.
Horses will only deep sleep when they feel safe. Keep your horse’s life comfortable and low stress for maximum ZZZZZ’s.
Easy things you can do to relieve your horse’s general stress levels:
- Loads of appropriate exercise.
- As much turnout as possible.
- Lots of delightful and interactive grooming sessions.
- Safe interaction with other horses.
- A comfortable stall with windows and sightlines to horse friends.
- Lots of forage in a slow feeder situation.
- Small, frequent meals if you feed concentrates or fortified feeds.
- Keep a healthy weight on your horse.
- Manage any metabolic disorders.
- Keeping ahead of saddle fit issues.
- Making soundness and fitness top priorities.
- Working with your vet and farrier.
- Stay ahead of dental care
- Training. Perhaps you have read my masterpiece of an article about how I trained the spook out of my horse? I approached communication with him differently and taught him to be confident. Everyone’s stress level goes down.
- Proper desensitization to stressful triggers. Some horses don’t respond to the “make him deal” part of desensitization. Sometimes you need to give your horse tiny doses over long time periods. Muscling your horse into stressful situations often makes things worse.
- Plan accordingly with other horse owners in the barn. If you are teaching your horse to be less stressed away from other horses, try and occupy your horse with grooming, hand grazing, and positive experiences if his buddy is out on the trail or at the show.
- Vary up your horse’s training plan. No way in heck would I want to do the same workout every day. Your horse probably doesn’t want that, either.
Your stress = their stress.
- Work on your own stress level. DUDE. This is a hard one. There are dozens and dozens of ways to be mindful when you are at the barn. Work on your breath, learn some meditation techniques, create an exercise routine for you to reduce stress.
- Switch up his position in the trailer. Many horses really lose their marbles in the trailer. Go with a friend, or a mirror in the trailer, and try different trailer styles and where he’s positioned in the trailer.
- Find ways to make shows and clinics fun, not stressful. This is an entire other novel, but keeping your horse’s general routine and food and water the same is a good place to start. Also consider smaller, quieter, shorter schooling shows to build his confidence. It’s all part of the training process.
You will likely never be able to eliminate stress from your horse’s life.
Spooks and short-term stress happens, and most horses can recover well. These short-term stressors are often easy to spot, and can be addressed. The bigger picture and long-term stressors are where you really need to play detective, and absolutely get your vet involved.