MAKING THE MENTAL SHIFT
Horses, like people, tend to mellow with age, which can mean a job that was out of the question when the horse was a bundle of energy at 8 could very well be ideal for the same horse when he is 20 years old. Experience in the show ring, around crowds and with a myriad of situations encountered during a long life all help make a horse adaptable to a new job and surroundings. Even so, it’s important to prepare the older horse for change.
Malinowski and her colleagues monitored the cortisol levels---which tend to rise in response to stress---of 36 show horses in four different settings: at the barn, when they arrived at the show, in their show stalls before competition and finally, the minute they came off the course. Predictably, the more prepared and experienced show horses had lower cortisol levels at the event itself compared to the less experienced horses.
To help the horse make the mental shift into a new career, Malinowski advises continuing his familiar activities ---such as doing a few routine exercises in the arena or attending familiar competitions, if only as a spectator, at least once a week---and watching for warning signs for at least two weeks before deciding if the new career is a good match. “In many cases the novelty of a new environment might actually be more stressful to the horse than the actual career change, which is why you want to give him time to settle in before making a decision,” she says.
A horse who spooks more than usual, seems lethargic or goes off his feed might be signaling that he is having a hard time making the transition from his old job to his new one. And keep in mind that some horses under a great deal of stress don’t give off any warnings. This is likely to be the horse who seems to take change in stride, but in reality has no way of expressing stress, according to Malinowski.
When comparing cortisol levels in horses at home and in higher stress areas such as the performance arena, she was surprised to find that the therapeutic-riding horses showed the most stress of all the horse groups. Even more surprising: The horses sampled for the stress test had been in the therapeutic program for years. “Based on their cortisol concentrations, their stress was through the roof,” says Malinowski, who suspects these horses internalize stress more than a horse who prances or is generally nervous.
Fortunately, the research also suggests an antidote of sorts for this type of stress: physical exertion. “It’s tempting to overlook exercise for the older horse, but in many cases that might be the best way for him to work off any anxiety he might be having in a change situation,” Malinowski says.
All the more reason to keep your senior horse active, even if it means moving him through a succession of new careers as the years go by.
A sport or activity that was out of the question when a horse was young may be ideal for him after he has mellowed with age.
ELIXIR: One of the best ways of reducing a horse’s stress levels is to ensure that he receives adequate exercise.