Do you struggle with your horse’s stress levels? Horses are creatures of habit and are uneasy when in new environments, changing social groups, or when their routine is disrupted.

Stress and anxiety can also be caused by boredom or a lack of stimulation, inappropriate exercise programs, pain and discomfort, or changes in their feeding program.

Sometimes, stress and anxiety are temporary and resolve as your horse adjusts to changes in lifestyle. Other times, stress is chronic and is a sign that something in your horse’s management needs to change to support a calm temperament.

Horses release the hormone cortisol in response to stressful situations. When levels of this hormone remain elevated for long periods without returning to baseline, this indicates chronic stress and can lead to negative impacts on health and behaviour.

In this article, we will discuss the signs and causes of stress in horses and provide you with a practical 18-point guide to reduce your horse’s stress and anxiety.

Why Do Horses Get Stressed?

Horses are locomotory prey animals that adapted to being on the move constantly. Feral horses roam vast plains and mountains, covering more than 20 miles per day whilst searching for food and avoiding predation.

They are highly perceptive and keenly attuned to sensing threats in their environment. Horses also have a fast reaction time and rely on a well-honed flight response for survival, sometimes resulting in “spookiness”. [5]

Horses are also herd animals, living in large groupings both for breeding and protection from predators. They are extremely social animals that always require companionship from their own species. [1]

The natural lifestyle of the horse involves grazing for up to 20 hours per day on low-calorie grass, shrubs, and other vegetation. When not foraging or moving, horses spend time grooming, sleeping, breeding, and playing. [2]

Lifestyle of Domesticated Horses

Domesticated horses lead extremely different lives from their ancestors and modern-day feral counterparts. Horses are often stabled, with restricted social interaction and movement during the day.

In modern management settings, horses are often fed large meals consisting of high-calorie starch-rich feeds. These horses may receive little forage in their diets and can go long periods of the day between meals.

Starch-rich feeds lead to sharp spikes in energy and blood sugar levels, sometimes producing hot behaviour.

In addition, domesticated horses are often required to ride away from their yard or stable without other horses, such as when trail riding or schooling. This goes against their innate desire to remain as a herd for protection against predation.

These factors can interfere with the horse’s species-appropriate lifestyle. It is therefore understandable that our domesticated horses experience increased stress and anxiety levels.

Signs that Your Horse is Stressed

Stress is broadly characterized as the mental and physiological response to an external stimulus that is perceived as novel or threatening. [36]

A stressed horse can display many signs from mild unease to intense anxiety. Horses that are under chronic stress can also develop challenging health and behavioural issues, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Stereotypical behaviours
  • Aggression
  • Depression and lethargy
  • Undesirable riding and handling behaviour
  • Poor social interaction with other horses
  • Increased vocalisation
  • Yawning and tooth grinding
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • Flared nostrils

Stress Response

Your horse’s stress reaction may be triggered by physical stressors or by psychological stressors. [36]

Physical stressors include injury, illness, intense exercise or gut discomfort. Psychological stressors include circumstances that cause your horse to feel uncertain or afraid. [36]

In response to these stimuli, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and horses release higher levels of hormones known as catecholamines and glucocorticoids.

Catecholamines include epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenalin), which help to mediate the fight-or-flight response. These hormones increase your horse’s heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

Glucocorticoids include cortisol, which is widely known as the stress hormone. Cortisol helps the horse metabolize more energy from sugar (glucose).

When your horse faces an actual threat this endocrine response is beneficial, increasing alertness and energy so the horse can appropriately react. [36]

However, if the horse is chronically stressed, cortisol levels do not have a chance to reset leading to a number of potential negative outcomes. Horses with elevated blood levels of cortisol for long periods of time can experience: [36]

  • Aggressive or uncooperative behaviour
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular issues
  • Impaired immune function
  • Increased risk of gastric ulcers and digestive issues
  • Impaired growth rate
  • Inhibited reproductive function

Rules to Combat Stress

All horses experience stress differently. What causes significant stress in one horse might not provoke any reaction from another horse.

However, there are some general rules for minimizing stress in your horse’s life. The rules are known as the five freedoms of animal welfare: [7][8]

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

The five freedoms are the essential requirements that all animals need to ensure happiness and health. These freedoms must be maintained to keep stress levels low.

18 Ways to Reduce your Horse’s Stress Level

Here, we consider practices strategies to help relieve your horse’s stress and promote a calm demeanour.

These strategies center around providing your horse with a species-appropriate lifestyle based on the conditions they are evolutionarily adapted to thrive in.

You can also support your horse’s well-being by providing constant access to fresh water, a nutritious diet, a safe environment, regular veterinary check-ups and plenty of socialization.

There are also ways to help your horse cope with changing conditions and to desensitize them to potentially threatening situations. We will also consider supplements, management techniques, sleep, and training methods to further reduce your horse’s stress levels.

1) Check for Pain

If your horse is showing signs of stress, the first thing to check is whether they are experiencing any pain or discomfort. Pain is defined as a negative mental state caused by an aversive sensation from potential or actual tissue damage.

Pain can manifest itself in many ways, including: [3][4]

  • Increased reactiveness or heightened anxiety
  • Undesirable behaviour under the saddle
  • Undesirable behaviour during groundwork
  • Undesirable behaviour when stabled
  • Abnormal or aggressive behaviour when turned out with other horses
  • Expression of stereotypical behaviours
  • Depression, lethargy, or poor demeanour
  • General aggression or agitation

Pain can be caused by many things, including an ill-fitting saddle, bridle or bit pressure, dental pain, musculoskeletal pain, gastric ulcers and a whole host of other issues. [5][6]

Work with your veterinarian, farrier, physiotherapist, saddle fitter, and nutritionist to identify whether your horse may be in pain. Once you have addressed any sources of pain, move on to the other strategies listed below.

2) Give your Horse Friends

Horses are pack animals and have an innate desire to be with their own kind. When not grazing, moving, or sleeping, horses spend time grooming, playing, and interacting with one another.

Living as a herd helps horses feel safe from predators. Domestic horses still feel this threat even if they are not at risk of predation. [9][10]

Grooming also strengthens bonds between the herd and promotes parasite removal.

Horses form extremely strong social bonds with each other and can grieve when their friend dies or moves away. In some countries, it is actually illegal to keep a horse by itself.

Studies also show that positive social interactions are associated with lower cortisol and that disruptions in the social hierarchy increase cortisol levels. [40][41] Prolonged stress due to social disruption or change in access to resources can increase the risk of health problems, including gastric ulcers in horses. [42]

Allow your horse to live as a herd animal, giving them plenty of turnout and contact with suitable companions. Monitor herd dynamics closely when changing barns.

Note that if your horse’s social grouping is not compatible and they have a low standing in the social hierarchy, this can actually contribute to stress. [43]

Dominant horses can also experience stress as establishing dominance requires high rates of aggression which is influenced by hormones including cortisol. [43]

In horse groups with an established social hierarchy and abundant resources, stress levels as measured by fecal cortisol do not differ between dominant and subordinate animals. [43] However, if resources such as food, water and shelter are limited, subordinate animals can be more stressed. [44]

Horses in groups should always be provided with adequate access to resources, ideally dispersed in their environment to minimize competition.

3) Hang Mirrors in your Horse’s Stall

Ideally, all horses should be stabled with other horses in such a way that they can see and hear their companions. If possible, place bars between stables instead of walls so that horses can touch when stabled.

If your barn is not set up to provide this kind of interaction, putting a mirror in your horse’s stall or environment can help to reduce their stress and loneliness. [11]

Weaving is a locomotor stereotypy that is observed more frequently in horses that are stabled in isolation from other horses.

A study of horses exhibiting weaving behaviours found that placing a mirror in their yard significantly reduced the incidence of weaving and head nodding. The mirror was thought to mimic visual contact with other animals, minimizing the effects of social isolation. [35]

Mirrors also help to provide visual stimulation and enrichment, potentially helping to alleviate boredom.

4) Feed a Forage-Based Diet

Depending on your horse’s body condition and workload, their diet should consist of at least 80% fibre-rich forage. Forage is broken down by microbial populations within the horse’s hindgut or large intestine.

This produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which are the most appropriate source of energy for the horse’s body to use. VFAs are sometimes referred to as slow-release or cool energy for the horse.

In contrast, grain-based diets provide higher levels of starchy carbohydrates, which are broken down into sugar (glucose) and absorbed in the small intestine. Eating large meals of sweet feeds or complete feeds can rapidly spike blood sugar levels, sometimes leading to hot behaviour.

High-starch diets can also lead to gut issues and cause discomfort. In particular, feeding large meals of grains can result in starch overload in the hindgut and contribute to hindgut ulceration.

Diets that are high in carbohydrates and low in forage also increase the risk of horses developing health issues, such as equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), colic, laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and obesity [11][13].

 

Quiz: Assess Your Horse's Ulcer Risk

5) Extend your Hore’s Feeding Time

Feral horses graze for 16-20 hours per day on low-calorie grasses and shrubs. Horses evolved to have a strong desire to forage and chew constantly.

However, domesticated horses are often fed several large meals per day and may not have continuous access to feed. Horses fed higher calorie commercial feeds spend less of their time chewing and digesting food to maintain their body condition. [11]

This intermittent feeding schedule can result in periods of time where the stomach is empty, increasing the risk of gastric ulcers. Inhibiting natural foraging behaviours also leads to stress and stereotypical behaviours such as wood chewing. [12]

You can reduce your horse’s stress by giving them the freedom to express their normal foraging behaviour. Provide them with plenty of opportunities to graze on appropriately selected grass pastures.

Avoid calorie-dense feeds that can be consumed quickly. Instead, provide constant access to hay to ensure your horse’s stomach is not empty for long periods. [14][15]

If your horse is on a calorie-restricted diet, consider using hay nets or slow feeders to extend the time it takes them to consume their hay. You may also want to soak or steam your hay to reduce the sugar content or consider feeding straw.

6) Provide Constant Water Access

Dehydration can be a major contributor to stress in horses. In a study of horses penned or trailered, half of the horses were provided with water periodically and the other half were not provided with water.

The horses deprived of water had significant elevations in respiration, heart rate and blood cortisol levels indicating they experienced significant stress. [38]

Horses that are nervous may also sweat more and are more likely to develop diarrhea, causing them to lose more water and exacerbating the stress response.

Ensure your horse has constant access to clean, fresh water and is drinking enough every day.

Encourage your horse to drink by feeding extra salt and providing free-choice access to plain loose salt. In hot climates or when exercising, provide electrolyte supplementation.

7) Give your Horse Freedom

To further reduce stress levels in your horse, ensure that they have the freedom to express natural behaviour. This includes: [12]

  • Rolling and scratching
  • Running and free choice movement
  • Vocalising
  • Grooming and social contact with horses or people
  • Sleeping
  • Eating or foraging
  • Drinking
  • Licking and smelling

Prohibiting your horse’s freedom to express normal behaviour can impact welfare and increased stress levels. [16][17]

Your horse should have the freedom to express these behaviours constantly throughout the day, even when stabled. Ensure your horse can move, roll, and scratch when in they are stabled.

However, because horses cannot express running or free choice movement while stabled, it is important to give them time out of the stable each day.

Allow your horse to live outside with a herd as much as possible. If this is not an option for you, provide daily turnout in a paddock or in-hand trail walking and give your horse a choice in direction and where to stop and graze.

8) Minimize the Stress of Transportation

Transportation is a stressor frequently encountered by performance horses and those used for breeding. Transportation for just one hour increases cortisol release, heart rate and heart rate variability, indicating a significant stress response. [45]

The stress of transportation can cause: [46][47]

  • Weight loss including muscle breakdown
  • Loss of ions through sweating
  • Depletion of energy reserves
  • Dehydration
  • Illness such as transport-associated respiratory disease

These effects of transportation can negatively affect performance in competition. Horses transported long distances (over 90 km) should be given at least 48 hours of rest prior to competition to allow the effects of transportation to subside. [48]

Of course, transportation is a required component of competing in equestrian sports. The good news is that horses can become habituated to transport and show decreased stress responses in subsequent transport events. [49]

To take advantage of this, acclimatize your horse to transportation at the beginning of the season.

9) Don’t Use Cross-Ties When Transporting

It is common to use cross-ties when transporting horses for competition, but this practice can actually increase stress and contribute to respiratory issues.

In a cross-over study of 10 horses, physiological measurements of stress were recorded before and after 24 hours of road transportation. Some of the horses were cross-tied to restrict head movement while others were loose in enclosed compartments.

After travel, cortisol concentrations were significantly higher in the cross-tied group compared to the group that was not tied. Cross-tied horses also had higher white blood cell counts and neutrophil to lymphocyte ratios, indicating immune stress. [39]

10) Avoid Excessive Exercise

Stress is a normal physiological response to exercise that involves hormonal and neural changes that allow the body to coordinate energy supply to the muscle, blood flow, oxygenation etc.

However, excessive exercise of long duration, high intensity, or with inadequate rest can exacerbate the stress response to exercise and contribute to poor performance and prolonged recovery.

Emotional/psychological stress can also alter the hormonal and neural response to exercise in horses including dysregulated endorphin and cortisol response. [50]

For exercising horses, both internal and external factors contribute to the stress response.

External factors that induce stress in exercising horses include: [51]

  • Transportation
  • Hot, humid conditions
  • Airborne particles that affect respiratory health
  • Pathogens that take advantage of a depressed immune system

Interal factors refer to physiological changes that naturally occur with exercise but can cause stress in the body. These include:

  • Electrolyte imbalance and dehydration
  • Lactic acid buildup and decreased blood pH
  • Hyperthermia
  • Oxidative stress in tissues
  • Mechanical stress affecting airways, lungs, and limbs

Appropriate training programs that increase exercise intensity gradually and allow adequate rest can reduce the physiological effects of exercise stress.

Electrolyte supplementation, feeding and rest throughout prolonged exercise are also important to consider, especially for horses engaged in very heavy work such as endurance racing.

11) Provide Moderate Physical Exercise

A heavy training or competition schedule can contribute to stress in your horse, but moderate levels of exercise can help to combat stress.

A study at the Jeju National University looked at 61 horses in three different groups of exercise levels: horses used for tourist riding excursions, horses used for riding lessons, and resting horses that were not ridden.

Cortisol levels in saliva were lowest for horses participating in riding lessons, indicating the lowest stress levels. [37]

Resting horses had the highest peak levels of cortisol, suggesting that resting without exercise can increase stress levels in horses. [37]

12) Enrichment Activities to Combat Boredom

Boredom can be a major contributor to stress for horses that are primarily kept in stall confinement. You can reduce boredom and support foraging behaviour with some of the following enrichment tools: [14][15]

  • Hay ball feeders
  • Treat balls filled with high-fibre pellets
  • Fruits and vegetables hung from rope in your horse’s stable or environment; examples include apples, carrots, and cucumbers
  • Non-toxic tree branches hung from various spots
  • Forage hung in different locations and at different heights
  • A variety of forage formats, including hay, soaked pellets, dry pellets, grass, and chaff

13) Ensure your Horse is Getting Enough Sleep

Horses can sleep standing up thanks to an anatomical arrangement known as the passive stay apparatus, which keeps their joints stable while requiring little muscular energy.

However, to achieve rapid eye movement (REM) sleep horses must be lying down with their head on the floor (lateral recumbency). Periods of REM sleep are essential for cognitive function and memory processing.

Horses that are unable to achieve REM sleep can experience stress and a poor mental state for training and day-to-day activities. Small stables, bright overnight lights, excessive night noise, or poor bedding can impede your horse’s REM sleep cycles.

Follow these steps to ensure your horse gets enough REM sleep: [20][21][22]

  • Provide good bedding depth using straw or shavings (15cm+)
  • Turn barn lights off overnight
  • Make sure your horse can lie down fully in their stable
  • Minimize overnight noise exposure

14) Minimize Stress in Broodmares

External factors that induce stress and increase corticosteroids can lead to lower progesterone levels and interfere with other reproductive hormones. This can lead to reproductive failure including embryonic loss or an increased number of cycles until conception. [55]

Mares that are kept in low-stress environments have lower rates of embryonic loss and higher rates of pregnancy compared to mares housed in more stressful environments. [55]

Mares with stereotypical behaviour, such as weaving, also have lower fertility rates compared to control mares. [56] Reducing stress and preventing the development of stereotypies can improve reproductive success in broodmares.

Some factors to consider for reducing stress in broodmares include:

  • Maintain a stable social group with no newcomers
  • Increase time spent in paddocks versus stalls
  • Promote foraging behaviour by placing hay around the paddock

Practices that promote free movement and limit time in the stall benefit the pregnant mare, developing foal and postpartum mare. After foaling, allowing free movement can improve the elimination of uterine fluid and enhance fertility for future pregnancies. [55]

15) Minimize Stress During Weaning

Weaning is a significant stressor for foals, which can predispose them to disease, injury and poor growth. Signs that your foal is stressed in weaning include: [54]

  • Frequent whinnies or complete silence
  • Inattentive, distracted or depressed affect
  • Unusual behaviour such as pawing, weaving, fence chewing
  • Agonistic behaviour such as biting, kicking
  • Apathetic behaviour or standing with a lowered head
  • Reluctance to play or engage with other horses
  • Depressed appetite

Weaning under modern domestic conditions usually occurs between 4 to 7 months of age. This is earlier and more abrupt than natural weaning, which occurs gradually between 9 – 11 months of age following natural changes in foal and mare behaviour. [52]

This dramatic change in the foal’s life can lead to a depressed immune system, changes in gut microbial populations, and an increased risk of gut health issues and stereotypies. [54]

Gradual and partial weaning protocols are less stressful than total and abrupt weaning. Gradual protocols include: [53]

  • Providing access to creep-feed prior to weaning
  • Increasing human interactions with foal prior to weaning
  • If stall-weaning, put mare and foal together in the stall prior to weaning and remove mare at time of weaning
  • If possible, leave mare and foal together with a physical barrier that prevents nursing but allows the foal to see, hear, smell and touch the dam
  • If weaning a group of foals in pasture, remove one mare at a time starting with the mare whose foal is most independent
  • Do not introduce any further management changes for 1-2 weeks following weaning

To reduce stress, it is important to introduce creep feed prior to weaning. Other procedures that may induce stress such as deworming, vaccination, branding and castrating should ideally be completed prior to weaning. [53]

16) Try Positive Reinforcement Training

Most horses are trained by negative reinforcement involving the removal of an aversive stimulus (such as leg or rein pressure) when the horse demonstrates the desired response.

If not used correctly, this training method can turn into positive punishment in which the horse gives the desired response but the pressure is not removed. This can lead to learned helplessness and increased stress levels. [23]

Positive reinforcement training has been found to reduce stress and anxiety levels in comparison to negative reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement also leads to faster learning and more relaxed and curious horses. [24][25][26]

Positive reinforcement involves the handler issuing a cue followed immediately by a primary reinforcer as a reward.

For example, a trainer may provide a visual cue or a verbal command to initiate some action followed by feeding a treat. A secondary reinforcer – such as a clicker – can be used simultaneously with the primary reinforcer. [24]

Once the horse is trained, cue presentation will prompt the desired behaviour, which is rewarded by primary and secondary reinforcers. The use of the primary reinforcer is gradually reduced so that only the secondary reinforcer is required. [24]

17) Give your Horse a Massage

Research shows that a daily massage can reduce your horse’s stress level.

In a study of thoroughbreds in race training, one group received daily massages while the other group got a massage every 3 weeks.

The horses that were massaged daily experienced significant reductions in blood levels of cortisol, as well as a reduced heart rate. A high heart rate is a sign of stress. [18]

18) Play your Horse some Music

Music has been found to reduce stress levels and undesirable behaviour in stabled horses. One study found that playing your horse relaxing music for three hours per day whilst stabled significantly improved emotional state. [18]

Another study found that 5 hours of classical music increased eating time and decrease hyper-alert periods and stereotypical behaviours in stabled horses. [19]

Calming Supplements – Do they Really Work?

While calming supplements are popular among horse owners, there is little clinical evidence for the majority of ingredients used

Magnesium is an important mineral that plays a role in nervous system function. Horses that are deficient in this mineral can exhibit anxious behaviour.

However, if your horse is already receiving adequate magnesium in their diet, there is no evidence that supplementation will result in a calmer, less reactive horse. [27][28]

Alpha-casozepine is a bioactive peptide derived from casein in cow’s milk. A small study found that horses supplemented with α-casozepine were calmer and easier to handle. [29] Further studies are required to substantiate these findings and determine effective dosages.

L-tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor for the happiness neurotransmitter, serotonin. Supplementing with L-tryptophan has been found to reduce stress and excitability in some animals, including dogs, poultry, and calves. The effectiveness varies greatly with age, breed, and gender.

There has been limited research on L-tryptophan as a calming aid in horses. One study using a commercial supplement found that a low dose of this amino acid actually increased excitability in horses. [30][31]

Aromatherapy treatment with rose and chamomile oil has been shown to reduce movement and increase resting periods in stabled horses compared to a control group. [32][33] More studies are needed to validate initial findings.

Ashwaganda is an herbal supplement used to help reduce stress and relieve anxiety in horses. While there have been promising animal and human trials, there are no published clinical studies examining the effects on horses. [34]

Nutrition for Stress Relief

The best nutritional strategy to support your horse’s resistance to stress is to provide a well-balanced feeding plan that addresses common nutrient deficiencies in the equine diet.

Vitamins and minerals contribute to healthy brain and nervous system function, mood regulation and recovery from stress and illness. You can cover your horse’s core nutrient needs by feeding a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement, such as Mad Barn’s Omneity.

Omneity is formulated to balance the majority of diets. This product provides high levels of vitamin E, a full B-vitamin profile, amino acids, and 100% organic trace minerals.

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Summary

A stressed horse can be difficult to manage. This 18-point guide provides practical steps to help reduce your horse’s stress levels on a day-to-day basis.

To help promote calm behaviour in your horse, remember these key points:

  • Ensure your horse has plenty of friends, forage, and freedom – the three F’s of good welfare
  • Avoid high-calorie starch feeds
  • Rule out possible causes of pain and discomfort
  • Ensure your horse is getting a good night’s sleep
  • Use management practices that reduce the stress of transport, exercise, reproduction and weaning
  • Music and massage can help reduce stress

If you’re still struggling with your horse’s stress levels after reading this guide, ask your veterinarian, behaviourist, or nutritionist for assistance.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

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