Re­lieve Equine Stres­sors

Learn to iden­tify fac­tors that cause horses to stress as well as how to avoid, re­duce or elim­i­nate them from ev­ery­day life for a hap­pier, health­ier equine.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Les­lie Threlkeld

Horses are built to run—more specif­i­cally, to run away from dan­ger. It is their nat­u­ral flight in­stinct that makes them hy­per­aware of their sur­round­ings and ready, if nec­es­sary, to es­cape preda­tors. How­ever, hu­mans have do­mes­ti­cated horses and placed them in a liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment and daily rou­tine that hardly re­sem­bles what na­ture in­tended. This has in­evitably changed the way horses re­spond to stress­ful sit­u­a­tions be­cause they can­not sim­ply run away. Liv­ing part of their lives in a stall, re­ly­ing on hu­mans for most of their nu­tri­tion and work­ing as rid­ing or com­pe­ti­tion horses have also in­tro­duced stress fac­tors that horses in the wild never ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Stress is al­ways about man­age­ment and con­sis­tency. Com­pare what a horse would be do­ing in the wild. It would be in a herd, walk­ing and graz­ing, and it would be slim pick­ings—no buck­ets of con­cen­trated horse feed,” says Ted Wright, DVM, of Cedar Ridge An­i­mal Hos­pi­tal & Equine Ser­vices. “Ev­ery­thing we do with them is a lit­tle un­nat­u­ral. The clos­est we can get to nat­u­ral has the po­ten­tial to de­crease the stress we’ve im­posed on them.”

Stress is not sim­ply a feel­ing or a re­sponse to the en­vi­ron­ment. There is a process hap­pen­ing in­side the body that can lead to chronic prob­lems if left unchecked. When a horse is stressed, the body re­leases the hor­mone cor­ti­sol. Of­ten re­ferred to as “the stress hor­mone,” cor­ti­sol is pro­duced by the adrenal glands and found in saliva and blood. Cor­ti­sol re­cep­tors are lo­cated in most cells and func­tion to re­ceive cor­ti­sol and use it in var­i­ous pos­i­tive ways, such as reg­u­lat­ing me­tab­o­lism, main­tain­ing elec­trolyte bal­ance and re­duc­ing in­flam­ma­tion. Cor­ti­sol is im­por­tant for the healthy func­tion of many of the body’s meta­bolic and im­muno­logic pro­cesses, but an un­bal­anced level of cor­ti­sol can lead to se­ri­ous health is­sues.

“[Too much] cor­ti­sol weak­ens the body’s nat­u­ral de­fenses. It sup­presses the im­mune sys­tem, so stressed horses are more prone to catch some­thing from a neigh­bor­ing horse or suc­cumb to com­men­sal [bac­te­rial] dis­eases like rain rot and thrush,” Dr. Wright says. “You can’t al­ways see out­ward signs, but in­ter­nally this is what’s hap­pen­ing. That’s why some stressed horses fail to thrive. Any way we can re­store com­fort in them at a more con­sis­tent en­vi­ron­ment or sched­ule will re­duce stress and make them more healthy.”

Signs of Stress

Horses will show signs of stress in var­i­ous ways. Short-term (acute) ef­fects of stress that go un­treated may lead to more se­ri­ous longterm (chronic) prob­lems. Here are just a few

of the many signs of stress. Ev­ery an­i­mal will dis­play stress dif­fer­ently. Know what is nor­mal for your horse so you can iden­tify sud­den changes in per­son­al­ity, be­hav­ior and habits. Acute Signs of Stress ■ Trem­bling ■ Vo­cal­iz­ing ■ In­creased Heart Rate ■ High Re­s­pi­ra­tion ■ Tense Mus­cles ■ Sweat­ing ■ Shy­ing ■ Run­ning ■ Flared Nos­trils ■ High Head/Neck Car­riage ■ Wor­ried Ex­pres­sion ■ Tightly Pricked Ears ■ Tail-Swish­ing ■ Pac­ing ■ Re­fus­ing Food Chronic Signs of Stress ■ Stall-Walk­ing or Weav­ing ■ Change in At­ti­tude ■ De­pres­sion ■ Ag­gres­sion ■ Gas­tric Ul­cers ■ Teeth-Grind­ing ■ Skin In­fec­tions ■ Colic ■ Dull Coat ■ Bolt­ing Food ■ Anorexia ■ Im­mune Sys­tem De­fi­cien­cies ■ De­creased Per­for­mance Sim­i­lar to peo­ple who in­ter­nal­ize their emo­tions, some horses may feel stress but do not show out­ward signs un­til chronic ef­fects are ev­i­dent. This is frus­trat­ing for own­ers who see no in­di­ca­tion of a prob­lem but are sud­denly faced with health is­sues.

Even if your horse seems healthy, you want to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to en­sure that he is so he can bet­ter cope with stress­ful sit­u­a­tions as they oc­cur. That means hav­ing “a good pre­ven­tive health-care pro­gram that in­cludes an­nual den­tistry, fe­cal ex­ams and vac­cines,” Dr. Wright says. “Be proac­tive, es­pe­cially if you know you’re go­ing to put a horse in a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion.”

To avoid com­pro­mis­ing your horse’s health, you want to iden­tify fac­tors that cause stress and re­duce, avoid or elim­i­nate them from his daily life. Here are seven com­mon stres­sors that may cause your horse anx­i­ety and how you can min­i­mize them.

Stres­sor 1: Changes In Rou­tine

Horses thrive on con­sis­tency, and sud­denly switch­ing their rou­tine is a sure­fire way to cause stress. Try to feed grain around the same time ev­ery day and keep horses on a reg­u­lar turnout sched­ule. Oc­ca­sional, short-term changes aren’t usu­ally a big stres­sor for most horses, but stay as close to their nor­mal sched­ule as pos­si­ble. If a ma­jor change in a horse’s rou­tine is un­avoid­able, try to make it grad­u­ally.

Court­ney Car­son is a pro­fes­sional groom and barn man­ager for Doug Payne Eques­trian in Aiken, South Carolina. With both event­ing and show-jump­ing horses of all ages and ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els in her care, she has to keep a con­sis­tent sched­ule not only to com­plete chores with ef­fi­ciency but also to make sure the equines in her charge stay healthy.

“[In my ex­pe­ri­ence] the num­ber-one cause of stress is a ma­jor change in rou­tine, like if all of a sud­den they go from night turnout to only go­ing out for a cou­ple of hours dur­ing the day or if the barn goes from be­ing quiet to hav­ing a ton of ac­tiv­ity,” Court­ney says.

The na­ture of Doug’s train­ing and sales

busi­ness means that horses are mov­ing in and out of his pro­gram fre­quently. Any time a new horse comes into the barn Court­ney’s pri­or­ity is mak­ing sure he stays hy­drated, “even if it’s only com­ing from an hour down the road” to de­crease the risk of colic as a re­sult of de­hy­dra­tion.

“Horses go­ing from well water to city water and vice versa might think the new water smells or tastes dif­fer­ent, but you can get water into them when they eat,” Court­ney says. A new horse’s first sev­eral meals will in­clude a mash of wheat bran mixed with plenty of hot water for easy di­ges­tion and ad­di­tional water in­take. Typ­i­cally, this process takes two to three days. For ex­am­ple, the first two meals will be all bran mash, the next two meals will be half bran mash and half grain fol­lowed by one more meal with al­most the full amount of grain and just a lit­tle bit of bran mash. Fi­nally, the horse will re­ceive his nor­mal grain meal with­out bran.

Court­ney also will in­tro­duce new horses to the sta­ble’s turnout and train­ing sys­tem grad­u­ally. Start­ing with limited su­per­vised turnout with a quiet equine com­pan­ion gives her an idea of how the new horse be­haves in the field. Af­ter a cou­ple days, Doug may ride the new horse qui­etly for only 15 or 20 min­utes and slowly in­crease the work­load to as­sim­i­late him into his train­ing pro­gram.

Stres­sor 2: Stall Rest

No mat­ter how care­ful you are, in­juries can­not al­ways be pre­vented. In some cases, a horse may be pre­scribed stall rest dur­ing re­cov­ery that can cause sig­nif­i­cant stress and anx­i­ety due to bore­dom, lone­li­ness, pain or dis­com­fort from the in­jury and lack of ex­er­cise.

When con­fined to a stall for an ex­tended pe­riod of time, a horse needs to be kept hy­drated and on a con­sis­tent feed­ing sched­ule. De­hy­dra­tion can cause im­paction colic and an in­con­sis­tent feed­ing sched­ule may up­set the in­testi­nal flora that aids in di­ges­tion, lead­ing to an in­creased risk of colic or other diges­tive prob­lems. A vet­eri­nar­ian may rec­om­mend ad­min­is­ter­ing a gas­tric sup­ple­ment dur­ing long pe­ri­ods of stall rest to avoid the de­vel­op­ment of gas­tric ul­cers (see “Stress and Gas­tric Ul­cers” side­bar at left).

Stall rest can be frus­trat­ing for nor­mally ac­tive horses. Pre­vent­ing bore­dom can help keep them from de­vel­op­ing vices such as pac­ing and weav­ing in the stall or be­com­ing de­pressed or ag­gres­sive. Toys such as Jolly Balls are a great way to keep a horse oc­cu­pied while on stall rest. If you are crafty, you may also make home­made toys for your horse. Fill an empty plas­tic jug with grain or treats, re­move or poke holes in the lid and hang

it in the stall with a hay string. He will have fun try­ing to get the good­ies out of the con­tainer.

“When we have a horse on stall rest, we try to keep him in a high-ac­tiv­ity area of the barn where peo­ple are al­ways walk­ing by and can say ‘hi.’ It keeps him in­ter­ac­tive. We will also put him where he can see an­other horse or is next to an­other horse so he never feels iso­lated or alone,” Court­ney says.

Stres­sor 3: Vet and Far­rier Care

The vet, whose reg­u­lar vis­its are nec­es­sary to en­sure the health and well-be­ing of a horse, isn’t al­ways a wel­come vis­i­tor. Be­ing poked and prod­ded dur­ing ex­am­i­na­tions can be in­tru­sive and some horses will come to rec­og­nize a vet and have a neg­a­tive re­sponse to her ar­rival. Sim­i­larly, horses may dis­like hav­ing their feet han­dled by a far­rier for long in­ter­vals or the ham­mer­ing noise and some­times the smell of hot shoe­ing while be­ing shod.

Horses who as­so­ciate stress with vet and far­rier vis­its should be worked with calmly and pa­tiently. “They build on good ex­pe­ri­ences,” Dr. Wright says.

On the morn­ing of an ap­point­ment, Dr. Wright wants to keep the horse’s rou­tine as close to nor­mal as pos­si­ble. Feed and turn out around the same time and bring your horse in only within the hour of the sched­uled ap­point­ment.

“If I know they’re go­ing to be stressed by me, I’ll take them into an open area and have my tech han­dle them for a while be­fore I even come up to them,” Dr. Wright says. Some­times dis­tract­ing the horse by of­fer­ing treats while vac­ci­nat­ing or ad­min­is­ter­ing treat­ment also helps.

Of­ten if an owner has had a bad vet or far­rier ex­pe­ri­ence and is an­tic­i­pat­ing a neg­a­tive re­sponse from the horse, her stress will project onto the an­i­mal and make things worse. Some­times it is pro­duc­tive for the owner to step away al­to­gether and ob­serve from a dis­tance.

De­spite ap­pro­pri­ate prepa­ra­tion and calm in­ter­ac­tions, some horses will still find the vet or far­rier to be too much to han­dle that day. “If it starts go­ing bad, I stop,” Dr. Wright says. “There is noth­ing that we’re usu­ally do­ing on those rou­tine ap­point­ments that can’t wait.”

Stres­sor 4: Rid­ing and Train­ing

Stud­ies show reg­u­lar ex­er­cise may re­duce a horse’s cor­ti­sol lev­els. How­ever, the high-in­ten­sity train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion sched­ule of a per­for­mance horse or a sit­u­a­tion where a horse is work­ing with dis­com­fort may cause the op­po­site re­sponse. Fre­quent signs of stress while be­ing rid­den are chomp­ing or grind­ing the bit, tail-swish­ing, ex­ces­sive sweat­ing and the in­abil­ity to re­lax. Over time, this may lead to de­creased per­for­mance, dif­fi­culty with train­ing and the de­vel­op­ment of gas­tric ul­cers.

All rid­ers want their horses to be happy, com­pli­ant part­ners with a good work ethic, an in­ter­est in learn­ing and a suc­cess­ful ca­reer. How­ever, it may not be the work it­self cre­at­ing your horse’s stress. An un­der­ly­ing prob­lem could cause dis­com­fort dur­ing rid­ing. If your horse seems to be stressed un­der sad­dle, here’s a check­list to iden­tify the source.

In­spect your tack to make sure the sad­dle and bri­dle fit cor­rectly and are not caus­ing sore­ness.

Have a vet­eri­nar­ian per­form a phys­i­cal exam to check for lame­ness or dis­com­fort in his body. Con­sider a mas­sage or sooth­ing lin­i­ment bath to re­lieve sore mus­cles.

Check that your horse’s teeth aren’t caus­ing mouth pain.

Ask your far­rier to look for an ab­scess, ill-placed nail or foot sore­ness. Were there re­cent changes in the way the horse was shod? Is your bare­foot horse ready for shoes?

If your horse’s phys­i­cal health checks out and his shoes and tack fit prop­erly, talk to your trainer about what you as a rider can do to re­duce stress. Maybe your horse is es­pe­cially wor­ried when hack­ing out alone or is tired of work­ing in the con­fined space of the arena.

Could it be that the ques­tions be­ing asked of him are too dif­fi­cult for his cur­rent fitness level?

Stres­sor 5: Travel

Trav­el­ing is one of the most stress­ful sit­u­a­tions for horses. They are not only go­ing to an un­fa­mil­iar lo­ca­tion, they are usu­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a sig­nif­i­cant change in rou­tine. De­pend­ing on your horse’s stress trig­gers, take steps to ease the anx­i­ety of travel as much as pos­si­ble.

Make sure your horse stays well hy­drated. Powder or paste elec­trolytes ad­min­is­tered orally en­cour­age him to drink. A bran mash or wa­tered-down meals will also in­crease fluid in­take.

Give him plenty of ac­cess to hay through­out the trip to keep him oc­cu­pied and keep the gut func­tion­ing prop­erly.

If your horse is ac­cus­tomed to reg­u­lar turnout but there is none avail­able, take him for fre­quent hand-walks to keep him out of his stall as much as pos­si­ble.

Talk to your vet about ad­min­is­ter­ing a pre­ven­tive dose of omepra­zole prior to trav­el­ing. This will re­duce stom­ach acid caused by el­e­vated lev­els of cor­ti­sol and ward off gas­tric ul­cers.

Stres­sor 6: Weather

Not ev­ery stres­sor is im­posed upon horses by hu­mans. Weather is a nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence that can cause stress re­sponses.

From the rise and fall of the ther­mome­ter’s mer­cury read­ing to a dra­matic shift in baro­met­ric pres­sure ac­com­pa­ny­ing in­com­ing se­vere storms, changes in weather pat­terns affect some horses. A sud­den vari­a­tion in weather may al­ter drink­ing, graz­ing or ex­er­cise habits, lead-

ing to gas­tric dis­tress, de­hy­dra­tion or mild colic.

Horses may have trouble ad­just­ing to fluc­tu­at­ing tem­per­a­tures (20 to 30 de­grees or more) in the course of a sin­gle day or week. Keep­ing an eye on the fore­cast and plan­ning ahead makes a big dif­fer­ence in pre­vent­ing weath­er­re­lated stress.

When it comes to weather, Court­ney will add bran mash to the horses’ reg­u­lar meals. This is not a com­plete diet change but it does in­vite them to eat and con­tinue get­ting water. “I’ll give them bran for three meals a day dur­ing a ma­jor tem­per­a­ture swing or once a day if the weather is go­ing to be weird all week. Then I try to al­ways keep fresh water and hay in front of them,” Court­ney says.

Vary­ing weather pat­terns are not the only con­cern. A horse who is too hot or cold is also sus­cep­ti­ble to ill­ness. Watch that your horse doesn’t have too much or too lit­tle hair for the cli­mate and be care­ful not to over- or un­der-blan­ket in win­ter.

Stres­sor 7: Re­pro­duc­tion/Preg­nancy

A mare in es­trus, or heat, may ex­pe­ri­ence phys­i­cal dis­com­fort due to the de­vel­op­ment of a fol­li­cle on an ovary or fre­quent uri­na­tion—one in­di­ca­tion to other horses that she is ready to be bred. Be­hav­ioral es­trus symp­toms also in­clude de­creased per­for­mance un­der sad­dle, dif­fi­culty be­ing han­dled and colic-like symp­toms. Con­sider a treat­ment such as al­trenogest (Regu-Mate ) which stops a mare from com­ing into heat or con­sult your vet­eri­nar­ian about other avail­able op­tions to re­duce es­trus symp­toms. (Read “To Ease the Stress of Es­trus” in the April 2018 is­sue of Prac­ti­cal Horse­man for more about man­ag­ing your mare’s heat cy­cle.)

A preg­nant mare will ex­pe­ri­ence stress dur­ing la­bor due to the pain of con­trac­tions and the birth it­self. She may paw, pace, sweat, lay down and get back up many times or bite at her belly in re­sponse to dis­com­fort. If she con­tin­ues to ex­hibit these signs af­ter foal­ing, your vet­eri­nar­ian may rec­om­mend ad­min­is­ter­ing med­i­ca­tion for pain re­lief such as phenylbu­ta­zone or Banamine .

De­pend­ing on a horse’s per­son­al­ity, en­vi­ron­ment and rou­tine, he may find many rea­sons to be stressed. How­ever, good man­age­ment prac­tices, such as keep­ing as many as­pects of his life as reg­u­lar and con­sis­tent as pos­si­ble and avoid­ing sud­den changes in rou­tine or diet, will help re­duce stress and pro­mote phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Dr. Wright con­cludes, “Make changes and have good ex­pe­ri­ences com­pound on each other.”

Sud­den changes in weather, such as an in­com­ing storm or a se­vere drop in tem­per­a­ture, can elicit a stress­ful re­sponse from horses.

You can help cut down on the stress of stall rest by keep­ing your horse in a high-ac­tiv­ity area of the barn, where he can stay so­cial and see other horses nearby.

Stay­ing calm and pa­tient with your horse is key to help­ing him be as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble dur­ing a stress­ful vet visit, es­pe­cially if he’s had a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence in the past.

Groom and barn man­ager Court­ney Car­son, pic­tured with the Dutch Warm­blood mare Starr Wit­ness at The Fork Horse Tri­als, strives to keep the event horses and jumpers in her care happy and healthy through a con­sis­tent rou­tine.

A horse who ex­hibits un­pre­dictable be­hav­ior and is dif­fi­cult to han­dle could be show­ing a chronic sign of stress.

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