Horses are no strangers to stress; in the wild, their survival depends on the ability to use the “fight or flight” response in order to flee predators. So in circumstances such as this, stress can be beneficial to the horse. However, too much stress can have a negative impact on their well being and lead to a host of health problems.
Inevitably, performance horses are going to deal with more stress than the average leisure horse. Intense workouts, travel, and competition—they can be a source of stress. So what’s a performance horse owner to do? Are there ways to help your horse better handle the stress of travel and competition?
Two types of stress
There are two forms of stress that can affect horses. One is acute stress, which is short-term and generally doesn’t affect their overall health. A young horse being taken on a solo ride for the first time, for example. Or a horse being introduced to new pasture mates. Acute stress cannot always be avoided, but the best way to help your horse adapt is by slowly exposing them to new experiences and using positive reinforcement training techniques.
Chronic stress occurs when a horse is consistently dealing with stressful situations. A horse that goes for hours each day/night without access to forage, for example. Or maybe one that is primarily stalled with little to no turn out time—both of these situations can lead to a state of chronic stress.
When a horse experiences stress of any kind, the sympathetic nervous system is activated which allows for the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine (the “fight-or-flight” response). This leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate.
However, during severe or chronic stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is also activated which causes an increase in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Consistently high cortisol levels can then trigger health issues such as glucose metabolism problems, equine gastric ulcers, and colic.
Learning to recognize signs of stress in horses is important so you can address the issue if at all possible.
Signs of acute stress include:
- increased heart rate
- tense muscles
- flared nostrils
- carrying head or neck higher than usual
- worried expression
- tail swishing
- pacing in stall
- poor appetite or feed refusals
Signs of chronic stress include:
- change in attitude
- stall walking
- stomach ulcers
- teeth grinding
- sudden skin infections
- dull coat
- changes in eating habits
- low immune system
- decreased performance
Horse trailer acclimation and safety
There’s no doubt that travel is one of the most stressful situations for horses. Not only is the horse going to an unfamiliar location (often without their pasture mates), but they are also experiencing a disruption in the normal routine. The more a horse travels, generally, the better they will learn to handle it, but here are some tips for helping your horse better cope with the stress of travel overall:
- Acclimate young or inexperienced horses to the trailer by taking short trips with a pasture mate and gradually moving on to solo trips as well as longer trailer rides;
- To protect your horse’s legs from injury (which can cause added stress), use shipping boots or wraps. Use fly masks to protect the eyes if front-facing trailer windows are going to be open;
- Give your horse plenty of access to hay throughout the trip to keep the gut moving;
- Ensure that your horse stays well hydrated. Give electrolytes to encourage them to drink. Soaking their meals and hay will help to increase fluid intake; and
- Consider (and talk to your veterinarian about) giving a preventative dose of omeprazole before travel to reduce stomach acid caused by elevated cortisol and prevent the formation of gastric ulcers in horses.
Safeguard your horse’s digestive system
Horses are prone to several different digestive issues, most of which are either caused or exacerbated by the stress of travel and competition. There are several measures horse owners can take, however, to help safeguard their horse's digestive system.
The first involves feeding your horse in a way that supports his digestive system. Avoid overfeeding grains which can lead to digestive upset and/or gastric ulcers. Instead feed plenty of high-quality forage and higher fat performance horse feeds for energy. Using a slow feed hay net can also help to ensure that your horse does not run out of forage.
Secondly, horses that are traveling and competing can benefit from a high-quality probiotic such as FullBucket’s EQ Probiotic Pellets. Equine probiotics support the microbial population in the digestive system and help promote the immune system, which is extremely important for horses that travel and compete on a regular basis.
Finally, supplementing with magnesium, tryptophan, B vitamins, and certain herbs (such as lemon balm, chamomile, hawthorn, etc.) can also help to reduce your horse’s stress levels.
A few more tips for reducing stress in performance horses
Studies show that regular exercise can reduce a horse’s cortisol levels, but high intensity training and busy competition schedules can have the opposite effect. Therefore, finding a balance for your horse’s exercise routine is important.
Horses, especially those under stress, tend to prefer a routine, so keep feeding, turnout time, and exercise regimens around the same time each day if at all possible. When traveling to competitions, try to keep your horse’s routine as similar as you can to their at-home routine. If they are having to be stalled for the weekend and there is no access to turnout, hand walk them several times a day.
Grooming and massage can also help to relax stressed horses, so consider employing regular grooming sessions and scheduling massage sessions whenever possible.
Finally, keep in mind that the rider or trainer’s attitude can have a big impact on the horse. A nervous or aggressive rider is going to create more stress in the horse than a calm rider. Therefore, managing your own stress levels can be beneficial for your performance horse.
Like us, horses respond to each situation differently. What may be stressful for one horse may not be for another. However, slowly acclimating horses to new and possibly stressful situations, feeding in a way that supports their digestive system, keeping a regular routine, as well as the other measures discussed above can go a long way in helping your horse better tolerate the stress of travel and competition and, by the same token, stay happier and healthier in the long run.