9 Unexpected Factors That Could Be Causing Your Horse Stress
Have you ever been to a rodeo or horse show and witnessed — or experienced first-hand — a horse bolt from the arena as if they were being chased by a predator?
Short-term stress allows horses to respond to their environment, like running away from a thunderous bang, and particularly if the horse has not been properly trained and desensitized to that sort of stimuli. However, if a horse remains stressed for a long period, they may start to exhibit dramatic changes in behavior and other health problems.
A horse can feel stressed or anxious about environmental or social triggers. Stress can appear during their daily routine or in new or fast-paced situations like events. As an equestrian, it’s important to get to know your horse and their stress triggers, along with the methods you can use to reduce those stress responses.
What Does a Stressed Horse’s Body Language Look Like?
Like people, every horse responds to stress differently. What stresses one horse may not bother the next, and how each horse responds to a stressor may be different, too.
Prolonged stress can negatively impact a horse’s health, potentially causing:
- Weight loss.
- Gastric ulcers.
- A weakened immune system.
- Erratic behavior.
- Other behavioral changes.
As a horse owner, you can likely tell when your horse is a bit off. Observe your horse’s body language and look for the following tell-tale horse anxiety symptoms:
- Weaving and stall walking: Many equestrians are familiar with the anxious tic some horses have, called stall weaving or walking. Horses who stall weave — a rhythmic swaying resulting from the shifting of weight between hooves — are usually anxiety-prone, bored or stressed.
- Shaking or trembling: When a horse shakes or trembles, their skin looks almost like it has ripples moving across it, and the ripple effect is often accompanied by visible twitching, too. This can occur anytime a stimulus triggers a stress response, including while riding, being led or standing.
- Eye rolling: Eye-rolling typically happens when a horse is afraid, and it’s usually accompanied by shaking or trembling.
- Backing into a corner: When your horse is frightened in their stall, their natural response is to get as far away from the trigger as possible, so they’ll back themselves into a corner.
- Rearing: A stressor may trigger your horse’s fight-or-flight response, and when they feel like they need to fight, they’ll rear to defend themselves.
- Spooking or bolting: When the horse feels like they need to run, they’ll spook and bolt, even while being ridden.
These signs can either be short-term or long-term, depending on the trigger.
Other Signs of Stress in Horses
In addition to the above, your horse might also show some of the following when they are feeling stressed:
- Yawning: No one knows exactly why horses yawn, but yawning may release a stress-coping endorphin that helps horses relax.
- Tooth grinding: Horses grind their teeth for many reasons, including when they feel anxious or are in pain. If you notice your horse is grinding their teeth, and they don’t have any dental problems, then they might be feeling stressed.
- Poor behavior: If you notice your horse practicing new behaviors like spooking easily, bucking, biting, rearing or pawing, then they may be reacting to a stressor.
- Excessive sweating: Just as humans get sweaty palms during anxious situations, horses sweat when they’re nervous, too. As their heart rate accelerates and their breathing increases, they’ll begin to sweat and show other signs of stress, like weaving or tooth grinding.
As you notice these stress symptoms, take note. See if you can find a common denominator to your horse’s stress responses so you can treat the chronic stress appropriately.
10 Unexpected Factors That May Be Causing Your Horse Stress
Pinpointing your horse’s stressors can be a bit tricky. In many cases, a horse’s stress levels spike as the result of a dramatic change in their environment or daily routine — but that’s not always the case.
Here are some other factors that may be contributing to your horse’s chronic stress.
1. Separation From Herd Mates
Horses are herd animals. If you think about their natural instincts, horses stick together both for social interaction as well as protection against predators. Although your horse isn’t in the wild, they may still feel a natural anxious response when they’re isolated in their stall or alone in a pasture.
Your horse may feel anxious because they feel vulnerable to predators, even with no immediate danger around them.
2. Large Events
Just as you feel nervous before a performance, your horse likely feels nervous, too. At an event, there’s an assortment of stressors that may cause your horse to display anxious behaviors. Event stressors include:
- Being surrounded by other horses.
- Feeling separated from their herd mates.
- Picking up on a rider’s anxiety.
- Being in a new environment.
- Not having access to feed or water.
The unfamiliar and hectic environment of an event causes many horses to feel anxious because they’re separated from the comfort of their daily routine.
3. Changes in Exercise or Diet
Depending on your horse’s personality, they may feel stressed when changing their slow-paced training to a rigorous training schedule with high-intensity exercise. It’s the human-equivalent of enjoying a jog every once in a while, to jumping into a professional athlete’s training schedule. Even people who enjoy working out can find this lifestyle change exhausting.
Your horse may also feel stressed when you change their diet. If your horse is accustomed to a feeding schedule, they’re going to get hungry and expect their meal at a certain time. If it doesn’t come when they expect it or isn’t the meal they’re used to, it may increase anxiety.
4. A Poor Diet
Feeding your horse a diet that doesn’t meet their nutritional needs can make your horse feel unfulfilled and evoke stress. Horses require a well-balanced diet of:
Additionally, horses need a balance between the fiber from forage, like grass and alfalfa hay, and grain to help their digestive systems operate at their best. If your horse’s diet is too high in grain content, however, it can create excess gas in their hindgut, causing discomfort — which can contribute to stress.
5. Old Trauma
If your horse experienced something traumatic in the past, their trauma could resurface as a response to a current-event trigger, even years after the traumatic event occurred. This is especially true for rescue horses who survived a less-than-friendly background.
Diagnosing old traumas can be difficult because you don’t know the full extent of their past experiences, but you can learn your horse’s triggers over time and work on building their trust to reduce their anxious response.
Some horses find boredom anxiety-inducing, especially horses on stall rest. Horses are meant to be active, so being in their stall for long periods of time can make them feel restrained and restless.
Bored horses tend to be stall walkers and weavers, which may be your first clue that your horse is stressed. Your horse may also play with their water buckets or back into a corner to protest their boredom.
7. Housing Conditions
Your horse’s housing conditions can cause them stress, too. For instance, if you move your horse to a new boarding site or move them to a new pasture they’re not used to, the unfamiliar surroundings can be a lot for them to process. Similarly, if there are loud noises and frequent traffic where you are boarding your horse, they can feel stressed as well.
8. Limited Pasture Time
Regular turnout is important to horses’ health and reduces their stress while in the stable. While in a pasture, horses have access to forage, water, their herd and enough space to roam and stay active. Limiting your horse’s pasture time can evoke a stress response, so try your best to avoid keeping them in their stall for hours on end.
9. A Busy Transportation Schedule
Some horses, namely performance horses, have a busy schedule traveling from one event to another. Even if your horse has been to the showgrounds before, they may feel anxious because they:
- Feel confined in the moving trailer.
- Are away from their herd.
- Don’t have access to their usual hay and water.
- Face new locations and experiences.
Some horses don’t mind traveling, while others struggle even to make it on the trailer. If you know that trailering causes your horse stress, consider making some adjustments to your transportation routine, such as making stops along a long route to walk them, to make them feel more comfortable.
Mares may experience fluctuating stress levels during the different stages of their reproductive cycle. When in estrus, a mare experiences minute changes — like frequent urination and lower activity levels — that can be uncomfortable, resulting in increased stress.
Pregnant mares may feel uncomfortable, too. You may notice a pregnant mare biting at her stomach, pacing, pawing and sweating as a result of stress and pain, particularly right before and during birth. Usually, the discomfort and stress resolve after foaling. These symptoms should always be carefully assessed, as they often share characteristics with colic.
What to Do If Your Horse Is Experiencing Stress
A certain level of stress is normal for horses. But, if you notice that your horse’s stress levels are going up and they’re constantly on edge, you might need to make some changes in their environment or daily routine.
If your horse is experiencing stress, here are some ways you can reduce their anxiety.
1. Establish a Routine
Having a sporadic daily routine can make things seem new and intimidating for your horse. With a daily routine, horses can adapt to familiar stressors — like being in their stall and riding in an arena — and feel more comfortable with their surroundings.
Try your best to keep your horse’s feeding schedule, meals, turnout time and exercise routine consistent to help reduce their stress levels.
2. Work With an Experienced Trainer
During your lesson, an experienced trainer can notice subtle changes in your body language that may be causing stress in your horse, like:
- Tense shoulders.
- Tight hands.
- Too much or too little contact.
- Misplaced heels.
As a rider, you can work on your breath, control and contact with your horse to make training more comfortable and stress-free for you both.
3. Get More Exercise
Getting enough exercise keeps your horse physically and mentally healthy. Some horses thrive on a busy schedule with plenty of exercise, especially horses who have a natural workhorse mentality and are prone to boredom.
It’s important for a rider to listen to their horse’s body language and develop a training regimen that corresponds with their energy level. You can also encourage exercise by allowing your horse more time in their pasture.
4. Acclimate Your Horse to Different Conditions
Gradually transition your horse to a new training schedule and daily routine, if needed. If you transition your horse too fast, their stress levels will spike and have the opposite effect. But, if you give your horse time to familiarize themselves with a new routine, they’ll eventually welcome the changes and experience less stress.
Gradual acclimation may also help for specific triggers, like fear of clippers or being loaded into a trailer. Present the trigger below the fear or panic threshold. Allow your horse to respond, likely with curious snorts and pawing. Over time, your horse will learn to trust the item or experience.
Wild horses use acclimation to feel comfortable in their environment, which is why gradual acclimation for domestic horses is often successful. Comparatively, avoid flooding your horse with too much trigger-related stress, or else it can increase their fear.
5. Use Supplements
Pro Earth Animal Health offers an all-natural supplement — Zesterra® — that aids in the prevention of stress-induced conditions, such as gastric ulcers or colic.
Zesterra® is made of 100% natural ingredients that stimulate your horse’s appetite and water consumption. It provides a balanced environment where healthy microbes can effectively break down nutrients for better absorption. Because of its all-natural ingredients, Zesterra® is fit for all stress-prone equine, including performance horses, foals, donkeys and mules.
You can feel comfortable adding Zesterra® to your horse’s diet either daily as a preventative measure or as-needed when you know that your horse will face stressful situations, such as trailering or showing.
Visit Pro Earth Animal Health Online for More Tips on Managing Your Horse’s Stress
At Pro Earth Animal Health, our mission is in our name. We are a team of passionate horse and cattle owners who strive to deliver high-quality, all-natural supplements to boost your animal’s health and keep them healthy for a long time.
Our veterinarian-approved equine product, Zesterra®, is a special formula we use on our own horses — especially those who are prone to stress. Visit our website and browse our other helpful tips for managing your horse’s stress levels, and shop for Zesterra® online or at a store near you!