Nan E. Martin, LSHC-CRTS
From training to competing to trails, everyone, including our horses and pets, are stressed these days. Even more alarming is that this seems to be the new accepted “norm.” Furthermore, people often don’t seem to be aware that they are stressed or that their horses are stressed.
According to the Stress in America Study, 78 percent of Americans experienced stress in 2015. While most of us go to the barn to spend time with our horses to stress less, we also must realize that we bring stress to the barn and that stress is affecting our horse.
Horse are intuitive and sensitive to energies around them. The signs of horse stress are obvious when a storm is approaching or a horse gets hurt, but most of the time stressors are subtle; and if you are not aware of what can
affect your horse, you can miss them.
How Does Stress Affect My Horse?
All forms of stress place additional burden on the adrenal glands, which are part of the endocrine system. A “flight or fight” response is created and the horse’s body secretes cortisol, a stress hormone, that supports the body in handling the stress response, which, for example, could be “runaway from perceived danger.”
Stress physically, emotionally, and mentally can affect your horse. While short-term effects are inconvenient, it’s long-term stress that should concern you. Here are examples:
PHYSICAL: Weakened immunity, cardiovascular and endocrine systems, which can translate into fatigue, poor muscle recovery, and stiffness, and can increase the risk of infection. Digestive issues such as colic or ulcers.
EMOTIONAL: Lethargy, depression, not enjoying people, other horses, or pasture time.
MENTAL: Loss of focus and concentration on training and exercise. Excessive worry can also create behavioral and attitude issues such as weaving and cribbing.
What are the Signs of Stress?
Before your horse had signs of long-term stress, he/she mayhave been showing you signs of acute stress. Here are a few examples:
PHYSICAL: Walks out of the stall stiff; slow recovery after exercise. Eating more or less than usual. Excessive sweating or elimination, and weight loss.
EMOTIONAL: Behavioral issues that affect riding and competing, which includes tail swishing, bucking, rearing, sourness and spooking. Fear and irritation.
MENTAL: Excessive worry and mental tension can translate into behavioral issues such as stall walking and weaving, restlessness or wood chewing. Any of this sound familiar? If so, then time to make some changes. Read on to learn how.
What are the Top Stressors?
Stressors are what will trigger your horse’s stress. Here are the top stressors:
Change in Routine or Environment – This includes changing barns, trainers, grooms, owners, companions, farriers, vets, or even inconsistent feeding or training schedules.
Training/Competing – While some of these are obvious, such as smaller stalls, trailering, and being away from home, other things, such as unfamiliar smells and people, and all-night stable lights amplify stressors.
Injury/Illness – An injury or illness can completely change up a horse’s routine, especially when turn-out or exercise is limited.
Some horses will respond better to stressors than others, but that is dependent on how your horse was trained at
an early age.
How Can You Minimize Your Horse’s Stress?
In my book, Stress Less: Transforming Stress to Success, I developed the ERASE Formula, to guide people in releasing stress. Here I’ve adapted it for horses:
E-nvironment: Offer proper nutrition, turnout, and exercise. If a barn or trainer stresses you or your horse, find a better fit. Diffuse/use essential oils.