To an extent, stress is a normal, everyday part of life for horses.
A thunderstorm blows through. A buddy horse is taken out for a solo ride. Or due to unforeseen circumstances, feeding time occurs a few hours later than usual.
Sometimes, stressors that affect our horses cannot be avoided, but many times, we may unintentionally be causing stress due to the way we feed, exercise, and manage them.
The key is to avoid allowing our horses to experience chronic stress, which can adversely affect their overall health.
The following are the most common causes of stress in horses over which we have some amount of control:
- Poor diet;
- Heavy exercise;
- Stall confinement; and
- Social environment.
In this article, we’ll focus on the horse’s social environment, specifically, and how it may result in chronic stress. We’ll also list some tips for spotting signs of stress in horses and alleviating social stress.
How Stress Affects Horses
When horses experience stress of any kind, a hormone known as cortisol rises. When cortisol increases, it sets off a chain reaction:
- Sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream increases,
- The brain’s use of glucose becomes enhanced; and
- There is also an increase in the availability of substances that repair bodily tissues.
Additionally, cortisol alters immune system response and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system, as well as growth processes.
This is all meant to help the body cope with short-term stressful situations, but if stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels remain high, negatively impacting the horse’s health and well-being.
An example of how chronic stress can negatively impact the horse is gastric ulcers. This condition is thought to affect the majority of performance horses due to social stress, heavy exercise, and feeding programs that don’t support the horse’s digestive health.
Social Stress in Horses
Horses are herd animals that have a basic need to connect with other horses. In fact, social interaction is essential to their well-being as well as their survival in the wild.
They can also form strong social attachments with one another and breaking up socially bonded individuals can cause extreme distress
Another common source of social stress in domesticated horses is isolation. This can occur when a horse is transported long distances, quarantined, or confined to a stall due to illness or injury. Management practices can also lead to social isolation and cause stress when horses are housed and exercised in a way that limits their opportunity to interact with other horses.
Horses have an innate need to be with other horses, but with any horse herd, there is a social hierarchy structure in place. This structure is fluid, however, and can change as new horses come into a herd or as horses age (or get injured).
WIth domesticated horses, the social hierarchy of the group can be a source of stress in some cases. This often occurs when a horse is at the bottom of the hierarchy and is pushed away from feed or hay by more dominant horses. This tends to happen with older horses, but new or more timid horses may also be susceptible to being picked on as well.
In short, horses need the companionship of other horses, but certain group settings may actually be detrimental to a horse’s health. It’s up to us to recognize stressed horse behavior and work to alleviate this.
Signs of Social Stress in Horses
A horse that is experiencing social stress may show a range of signs, from mild unease to full-blown anxiety. They may also develop health or behavioral issues including the following:
- Weight loss or gain;
- Diarrhea or Free Fecal Water Syndrome;
- Lowered immune system;
- Stereotypical behaviors such as cribbing or weaving;
- Excessive horse yawning (may occur more at feeding time);
- Depression and/or lethargy;
- Increased vocalization;
- Frequent yawning;
- Teeth grinding;
- Increased heart and breathing rate; and
- Flared nostrils.
If your horse is displaying any of these signs and there is no other medical cause, social stress could be to blame.
10 Tips for Social Stress Relief in Horses
The following tips can help alleviate stress caused by the horse’s social environment:
1) Don’t allow your horse to live alone. Horses need social interaction and companionship from other horses.
2) If you cannot have other horses as companions for a lone horse or if you have a horse that cannot be with your other horses due to being picked on, consider providing another type of companion animal such goats, sheep, llamas, or alpacas.
3) Separate older horses or horses that are less dominant during feeding time. This could mean temporarily stalling or feeding in a separate pen. Also make sure to disperse hay in several locations to minimize competition among horses.
4) If separating horses during feeding time isn’t feasible, consider reorganizing social groups into separate pastures. Place the horse that is experiencing social stress with a horse or horses that won’t pick on him.
5) Don’t overstock horses. There should be adequate resources, food, water, and shelter for all.
6) Avoid stall confinement as much as possible and give your horse plenty of turnout time with suitable companions.
7) Gradually expose young horses to mild stressors to build resistance. For example, gradual introduction to weaning, hauling, and separation from other horses can help reduce future stress responses to those experiences.
8) Continually monitor social group dynamics, especially when new horses are brought in. Keep in mind that it’s not only horses low in the social hierarchy that experience stress– dominant horses can experience stress as well, as high rates of aggression are influenced by hormones including cortisol.
9) When a horse must be isolated for travel or stall confinement, add enrichment opportunities such as music, toys, or food puzzles. Studies have also shown that mirrors may act as a temporary substitute for an equine companion and help to reduce stress from isolation.
10) During temporary times of social stress or isolation, such as moving a horse to a new stable, during travel, or when stalling due to an injury or illness, supplement with high-quality probiotics. For performance horses, daily probiotics such as FullBucket’s Equine Probiotic Pellets are likely a better option. Probiotics can help to reduce a horse’s risk of developing gastric ulcers and experiencing other digestive problems like colic.
Keep in mind that all horses will experience social stress at times; this is a normal part of being a horse. However, as horse owners, our job is to prevent chronic social stress from occurring in order to keep our horses healthy and happy in the long term.
Protect your horse’s gut from stress year-round with FullBucket probiotics for horses.