Despite their immense size, horses can be deeply emotional creatures. There are many contributing factors that can increase a horse’s stress. It’s important to recognize these factors and be aware of any indications that show a horse is stressed.
When something changes in their routine, a horse can have a hard time adjusting. Because a horse doesn’t know how to process their thoughts and feelings the way a person can, stress can build quite easily. When a horse is stressed, he or she displays several signs to note that something is wrong.
If you suspect that your horse is stressed, read on to learn about signs you might observe. In this article, we will explore the triggers that might be causing your horse stress, the effects of unmanaged stress in horses, and what you can do as a horse owner to provide relief.
Signs of Stress in Horses
Horses are creatures of habit. They tend to thrive best when they’re able to keep a predictable schedule. This predictable schedule can be in terms of grazing, feeding, and exercise. When a horse’s normal schedule is disrupted in some way, the horse may show signs of stress.
Even if changes in the horse’s life seem minimal to humans, a horse can perceive it as a threat to its security. Even a small adjustment can have a strong impact on their stress level. While changes in routine are sometimes inevitable, it’s important to know what to look for to know if a horse is feeling more stress.
Signs of stress in horses include the following:
- Frequent tail swishing
- Increased noise
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased concentration during riding or interactions
- Empty chewing
- Sweating while at rest
- Gastric distress
- Frequent illness
How Does Stress Affect Horses?
Prolonged stress can affect a horse’s health, much in the same way it can affect a human’s health. If your horse is stressed, you might notice a few notable changes.
Stress often causes digestive issues in horses. This is because stress can cause a horse’s stomach to produce more acid than normal, which can lead to nausea and/or diarrhea.
In addition to digestive issues, a stressed horse might experience weight loss and issues with their immune system. Feeling sick or weak may even add to the stress a horse is already dealing with. Exacerbated stress can also cause tooth grinding and rising heart rates in horses.
When humans are struggling to manage stress, it often causes negative behavioral changes. The same can be said for horses, so you may notice that your horse is acting irritable or avoidant.
What Causes Stress in Horses?
Once a horse owner has noticed behaviors that indicate that a horse is stressed, the next step is almost always determining a cause. It can be difficult to know for sure what’s upsetting a horse, but common causes of stress in horses include these situations:
- Poor diet or dietary changes: Changing a horse’s diet can be risky. If a horse is lacking certain vitamins and nutrients their bodies need, it may become stressed or sick while they adjust.
- Changes in housing or negative environmental changes: A new barn, a new stable neighbor, or some sort of damage to the environment they’re familiar with can cause horses to become stressed.
- Decreased ability to graze: When something occurs that interferes with a horse’s ability to leave the barn and run around, the horse’s energy is pent up.
- Changes in exercise or poor exercise routines: Difficult changes in a horse’s exercise routine can lead to stress. Further, an exercise routine that’s too challenging or exhausting may stress out a horse.
- Frequent travel: Frequent travel, like for shows, can interfere with a horse’s natural routine. As such, traveling could leave a horse feeling quite stressed.
- Pregnancy or recent birth: A pregnant horse goes through a lot of hormonal and physical changes. Giving birth and getting used to having a foal to care for can also be a big adjustment for a horse.
- A recent illness or injury: Horses feel vulnerable when they’re sick or injured, and this vulnerability can make the horse more anxious than they normally are.
Stress Relief for Horses
There are five elements to focus on when it comes to animal welfare. These can help you identify how to relieve a horse’s stress.
- Freedom from potential injury
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from hunger or thirst
- Freedom from fear and danger
- Freedom to behave as a horse does naturally
Working on these general freedoms can help reduce a horse’s stress levels. However, if you’d like more specifics on how to enhance these freedoms, try to find issues you need to isolate.
Look for anything that might be causing your horse discomfort and address it. Discomfort and illness are major sources of stress for horses, so helping them feel strong and healthy is key.
Ensure that your horse isn’t lonely by keeping them near other horses. Horses are pack animals and they feel the most secure when they’re surrounded by a group of their own.
Provide an optimal diet and constant access to water. Security when it comes to food and water is essential for a horse’s well-being.
Let your horse express itself by running around, rolling, neighing, playing with other horses, interacting with and grooming people, and doing other activities your horse enjoys.
Have your horse get moderate exercise, but don’t overwork them.
Finally, if your horse is naturally or normally stressed, or there are changes you can’t make (local noise, frequent travel, etc.), you might want to look into natural supplements that may help calm the horse.
Even though horses can’t exactly tell us what’s wrong, they display behaviors that give us hints. By paying close attention to your horse’s body language and the condition of their health, you can gather information about the way stress affects them. Use these findings to help reduce triggers so that your horse can recover from stressful events in their life.