All of us, even our horse, experience stress at one level or another. In fact, stress and a low level aids in our day-to-day routines and helps us get through each and every day. The problem becomes worse when mild stress is retained and builds upon itself; that is when it starts to become chronic and harmful.
Here I want to share with you the seven most likely causes that can lead to chronic stress in your horse.
Changes in Routine Stressor #1: Horses thrive on consistency, and suddenly switching their routine is a surefire way to cause stress. Try to feed grain around the same time every day and keep horses on a regular turnout schedule. Occasional, short-term changes aren’t usually a big stressor for most horses, but stay as close to their normal schedule as possible. If a major change in a horse’s routine is unavoidable, try to make it gradually.
Stall Rest Stressor #2: No matter how careful you are, injuries cannot always be prevented. In some cases, a horse may be prescribed stall rest during recovery that can cause significant stress and anxiety due to boredom, loneliness, pain or discomfort from the injury and lack of exercise.
When confined to a stall for an extended period of time, a horse needs to be kept hydrated and on a consistent feeding schedule. Dehydration can cause impaction colic and an inconsistent feeding schedule may upset the intestinal flora that aids in digestion, leading to an increased risk of colic or other digestive problems. A veterinarian may recommend administering a gastric supplement during long periods of stall rest to avoid the development of gastric ulcers.
Stall rest can be frustrating for normally active horses. Preventing boredom can help keep them from developing vices such as pacing and weaving in the stall or becoming depressed or aggressive. Toys such as Jolly Balls are a great way to keep a horse occupied while on stall rest. If you are crafty, you may also make homemade toys for your horse. Fill an empty plastic jug with grain or treats, remove or poke holes in the lid and hang it in the stall with a hay string. He will have fun trying to get the goodies out of the container.
Vet and Farrier Care Stressor #3: The vet, whose regular visits are necessary to ensure the health and well-being of a horse, isn’t always a welcome visitor. Being poked and prodded during examinations can be intrusive and some horses will come to recognize a vet and have a negative response to her arrival. Similarly, horses may dislike having their feet handled by a farrier for long intervals or the hammering noise and sometimes the smell of hot shoeing while being shod.
Riding and Training Stressor #4: Studies show regular exercise may reduce a horse’s cortisol levels. However, the high-intensity training and competition schedule of a performance horse or a situation where a horse is working with discomfort may cause the opposite response. Frequent signs of stress while being ridden are chomping or grinding the bit, tail-swishing, excessive sweating and the inability to relax; over time, this may lead to decreased performance, difficulty with training and the development of gastric ulcers.
All riders want their horses to be happy, compliant partners with a good work ethic, an interest in learning and a successful career. However, it may not be the work itself creating your horse’s stress. An underlying problem could cause discomfort during riding. If your horse seems to be stressed under saddle, here’s a checklist to identify the source.
Travel Stressor #5: Traveling is one of the most stressful situations for horses. They are not only going to an unfamiliar location, but they are also usually experiencing a significant change in routine. Depending on your horse’s stress triggers, take steps to ease the anxiety of travel as much as possible.
• Make sure your horse stays well hydrated. Powder or paste electrolytes administered orally encourage him to drink. A bran mash or watered-down meals will also increase fluid intake.
• Give him plenty of access to hay throughout the trip to keep him occupied and keep the gut functioning properly.
• If your horse is accustomed to regular turnout but there is none available, take him for frequent hand-walks to keep him out of his stall as much as possible.
• Talk to your vet about administering a preventive dose of omeprazole prior to traveling. This will reduce stomach acid caused by elevated levels of cortisol and ward off gastric ulcers.
Weather Stressor #6: Not every stressor is imposed upon horses by humans. Weather is a natural occurrence that can cause stress responses.
From the rise and fall of the thermometer’s mercury reading to a dramatic shift in barometric pressure accompanying incoming severe storms, changes in weather patterns affect some horses. A sudden variation in weather may alter drinking, grazing or exercise habits, leading to gastric distress, dehydration or mild colic.
Horses may have trouble adjusting to fluctuating temperatures (20 to 30 degrees or more) in the course of a single day or week. Keeping an eye on the forecast and planning ahead makes a big difference in preventing weather-related stress.
Varying weather patterns are not the only concern. A horse that is too hot or cold is also susceptible to illness. Watch that your horse doesn’t have too much or too little hair for the climate and be careful not to over- or under-blanket in winter.
Reproduction/Pregnancy Stressor #7: A mare in estrus, or heat, may experience physical discomfort due to the development of a follicle on an ovary or frequent urination—one indication to other horses that she is ready to be bred. Behavioral estrus symptoms also include decreased performance under saddle, difficulty being handled and colic-like symptoms. Consider a treatment such as altrenogest (Regu-Mate) which stops a mare from coming into heat or consult your veterinarian about other available options to reduce estrus symptoms. (Read “To Ease the Stress of Estrus” in the April 2018 issue of Practical Horseman for more about managing your mare’s heat cycle.)
A pregnant mare will experience stress during labor due to the pain of contractions and the birth itself. She may paw, pace, sweat; lie down and get back up many times or bite at her belly in response to discomfort. If she continues to exhibit these signs after foaling, your veterinarian may recommend administering medication for pain relief such as phenylbutazone or Banamine.
Depending on a horse’s personality, environment and routine, he may find many reasons to be stressed. However, good management practices, such as keeping as many aspects of his life as regular and consistent as possible and avoiding sudden changes in routine or diet, will help reduce stress and promote physical and mental health. Dr. Wright concludes, “Make changes and have good experiences compound on each other.”
It is at this point that I would like to go into greater detail about how stress can develop into “Gastric Ulcers”. Gastric ulcers are a common result of chronic stress and cause a large amount of anxiety for owners. Unfortunately, ulcers often go undiagnosed until the effects become serious. Cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands during stress, reduces the production of the hormone prostaglandin, which then lowers the pH (increases the acidity) of the stomach. In turn, the stomach’s protective mucous lining is less effective and susceptible to damage. The development of lesions (open sores or wounds) on the stomach lining may cause abdominal pain, reduced appetite, colic, and poor body condition.
What are your thoughts and experiences?....
Until Next Time …. “Ride for the Brand”