It’s worth bearing in mind that every horse is an individual, and what upsets one horse may not bother another. Knowing your horse and being able to identify what upsets and stresses him out is a good starting point.
Stress can manifest in many different ways, some of which are perceived as undesirable behaviour — such as being fresh and sharp to ride. However, it can also lead to the horse developing stereotypies (‘vices’) — for example box walking, wind sucking or crib-biting — to help them cope.
BHS level four coach Stef Eardley shares seven tips to bring your horse’s stress back under control.
As horse owners, our job is to minimise stress through good care and training, and often it’s a multitude of things that produce the best results:
1. Give him an MOT
The first thing to do is ensure your horse is healthy and free from pain. Horses tend to run away from pain so misbehaving and over-reacting may be a result of injury, illness, or poorly fitting tack. Ask your vet to give your horse a health check to ensure he is well and consider getting his back and teeth checked by a qualified dentist and physiotherapist or osteopath.
Get your saddler to check the fit of your saddle, and it might also be worth checking that his bridle isn’t causing him any discomfort and that you are riding him in an appropriate, well-fitting bit.
2. Look at his home life
Horses are herd animals and evolved to live in a well-structured, constant group. In the wild, they spent their days grazing a variety of grasses, herbs and shrubs and moving together as a herd. The herd gave them safety in numbers, a feeling of security, and made them generally calmer.
Despite years of domestication, some horses still prefer to live out all year with others, and sprightly horses can benefit hugely from this routine. Not only will they be able to use up any excess energy, but it’s closer to their natural environment, living out may help them stay calmer, be less stressed and less likely to misbehave. If your yard doesn’t offer all year round turnout, and being stabled is affecting your horse’s wellbeing, it may be worth looking at yards that do.
3. Assess his feed
Assess your horse’s feed ration and determine whether he is getting too much unnecessary energy from his feed. The horse’s gut works best on a constant trickle of high fibre material, so whether’s he’s a family pony or a competition horse, the bulk of his diet should be based on fibre. Fibre can be fed in many ways, from well-soaked hay for the laminitis-prone, to alfalfa for powering the performance horse.
So rather than simply adding concentrates, choose the right type of fibre for your horse. If he needs additional energy, then top up the fibre with oil, which is a great form of slow-release energy and far less likely to cause bursts of explosive energy that you may see with concentrates. Weigh your horse often to ensure you are giving the correct amount of feed for his size too.
4. Increase his exercise
Very importantly, make sure your horse is getting enough exercise, whether that is turnout, ridden exercise or simply going on the horse walker for an hour. A mixture of turnout and ridden work is ideal. If you struggle to find the time to ride every day, consider a sharer who can ride on the days you can’t.
For horses who are well covered and good-doers in winter, there’s no harm in leaving them without a rug on. Horses don’t start feeling the cold until the temperature drops to around 5°C, and using up excess energy to stay warm may actually be beneficial.
5. Gain his respect
If your horse is difficult to lead out from his stable or doesn’t think twice about walking all over you, his behaviour will only be exacerbated when he’s fresh, so it might be worth re-evaluating how you handle him. The most important thing on the ground is that your horse respects your space, so when leading, make sure he is not on top of you, otherwise, you are going to end up getting hurt if he jumps about. Teach him spatial awareness and, if your horse looks past you or looks through you, then that is where he is heading. Keep his focus on you. This way, if he is going to misbehave, he will go around you – not through you.
6. Feed for a healthy gut
It’s often said that a settled gut results in a settled horse. If your horse is the type prone to becoming ‘tucked up’, doesn’t keep weight on easily, or is prone to ulcers, then look for specific dietary support to calm his digestion, such as probiotic yeast, and for the ulcer-prone horse, antacids.
7. Consider using a calmer
There are plenty of products on the market, many backed by research into why they are said to help an anxious horse. Feeding a calmer in the run-up to, or during a stressful situation, may also help to take the edge off and encourage your horse to think rationally.
Meet the expert: Level four coach and grand prix dressage rider Stef Eardley competes internationally and has represented Great Britain. Stef is also a freelance dressage trainer and para trainer.