Stress is a term we use a lot when we talk about both human and horse behavior. And while it can have a positive effect – stress helps to keep us motivated and sharp, for instance, being under constant stress is a major cause of behavioural problems in horses. Sadly, it’s not widely recognised, and it can have long-term implications on your horse’s well-being.
There are many signs of stress exhibited by horses and it’s worth keeping a look out for these so you can recognise quickly when all is not well. They include:
- Tail Swishing
- Difficult to catch
- High head and neck position
- Ears pricked tightly forward
- Poor concentration
- Dull and depressed
- Unco-operative when handled and ridden
- Becoming a picky eater
- Weight loss
- Poor learning capacity
- Windsucking, weaving, box walking and crib-biting
Seven stress-busting tips:
Once you’ve identified that your horse is stressing, it’s time to take action to reduce his stress levels. Start by thinking about how you can meet his needs by considering the following:
1. Let him be part of a herd
Your horse needs social contact with other horses, but also his own space. At many livery yards horses are turned out into groups, which, if given the choice, they might not want to be part of. Turning out into a bigger area means that if all the horses in the group don’t interact well they can have their own space. If, with this in mind, you don’t think the yard or routine your horse currently has suits him, moving to a different environment could be what he needs.
2. Give him his freedom
Regular turnout is essential. Horses are designed to roam and graze for up to 14 hours a day, so keeping your horse confined to his stable will increase his stress. Also, consider what you feed your horse, and ensure he’s getting a forage-based diet, again trying to keep it as natural as possible.
3. Keep his mind occupied
If your horse has to spend time in his stable, provide mental stimulation in the form of toys or by hiding food so he has to search for it. This will help to keep him relaxed and occupied.
4. Consider his temperament
Some horses like a busy spot on the yard and may be happier if they can see lots of things when they look out of their stable. Other horses like peace and quiet, so it’s important your horse’s place on the yard suits him.
5. Add variety
It can be easy to do the same riding tasks with your horse every day. Try doing something different with him, such as walking him out in-hand, or simply spending quality time with him. Watch how he responds to the change.
6. Give him some control
Because he’s domesticated, your horse’s life lacks control – everything is done for him. So, where possible, make some changes to give him more choices and, in doing so, give him an element of control. For example, rather than his water in his stable always being in an automatic drinker, try putting a bucket of water in there as well, so he can decide which he drinks from. Or, instead of putting all of his hay in one big net, split it into two or three small nets and hang them around his stable. Again, this gives him the option to choose where he eats.
Take time to listen
If you don’t recognise or listen to the signs of your horse’s stress, they’ll escalate. Most unwanted behavior from your horse is merely his natural response to dealing with a problem he’s faced with. So, the next time your horse is doing something you don’t want him to, take a minute to ask why. Listen to your horse and perhaps change the way you’re asking him to do something. It’s difficult to override your horse’s fears, and forcing him to deal with a stressful situation is likely to cause his behavior to escalate. He’ll simply try to solve the problem by using his natural flight behavior, such as bolting, rearing, spinning and napping. Taking a step back and assessing the situation can go a long way to building trust between you and your horse and helping him to relax.
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