Wikimedia Commons/ “Horse Frightened by a Lion” by George Stubbs
8-hour work weeks. Hanging out all day with your buddies. Maybe even a nice box stall to shelter you from the elements. And obviously, your own personal assistant to compliment you and feed you cookies. Life as a horse is pretty sweet.
So I don’t really blame them for FREAKING OUT when their cushy lifestyle is challenged by things like evil trailers, vets or particularly alarming farts.
But how can you know if your horse is simply testing you or really, truly stressed? And when does stress become a long-term problem?
Stress in and of itself is not always bad–it’s simply another word for pressure, or placing demands on a horse’s mind or body. However, when stress becomes overwhelming, your horse’s sympathetic nervous system activates (the part of the brain responsible for “fight or flight” reactions), priming the body to react to the perceived threat.
Now for the sciency part. According to Rutgers Cooperative Research Extension, when a horse becomes stressed, a chain of chemical reactions occurs, both short- and long-term. First, the sympathetic nervous system releases epinephrine and norepinephrine. These trigger reactions that you would typically think of as “fight or flight,” including increased heart rate, increased respiration, and higher blood pressure, all of which would be beneficial if you were trying to flee from saber toothed tigers way back when, but are not quite so beneficial when a plastic bag rustles in the barn.
In situations of long-term stress, a slightly different chain of reactions occurs, eventually resulting in the release of cortisol, which helps the horse to metabolize glucose, giving it the energy to escape stress. Over long periods of time, though, too much cortisol can result in aggression, stunted growth, infertility, and gastric distress (ulcers, colic, poor appetite).
If you want the Cliff Notes version, according to Priory Equine Veterinary Surgeons, signs of stress in horses can be boiled down to the Four Fs:
Fight: Rearing, kicking, biting, charging
Flight: Bolting, spooking, inability to focus, sweating
Fidgeting: Obsessive behaviors like weaving, cribbing, fencewalking. This category can also include submissive behaviors like licking, chewing, or yawning if done to an excessive degree.
Freezing: Visible whites of the eyes, high head, hyper-vigilance, ears pricked
Reactions may differ for each horse, but when you notice something not quite right with your horse’s behavior, stress is often a contributing factor just as it is for people.
The first thing to do is to try and pinpoint the source of stress and if possible, take steps to reduce whatever it is that your horse perceives as a threat. For example, has the horse had some kind of change in its life recently, such as moving barns or an increase or decrease in work? If so, then initially as many things should remain the same as possible, such as feed, hay, schedule, etc. and horses should be slowly acclimated to the new environment.
Pharmaceutical or herbal remedies (Rescue Remedy, EquineChia, etc.) also can help horses to handle stress. Talk to your vet to determine the best course of action for your own horse’s situation, and feel free to share what has worked for you in the comments below!