Stress in horses

“First of all, remember now and then that it is very special what we are all allowed to do with a horse. Because I all see different types of horses and work with them every day, I have come to realize more and more how special that is. The horse is a special and very sensitive animal. During my work, the horse has to trust me. I stick needles in his body and touch it all over. Then I often also manipulate the spine and the horse has to relax.  We almost never have to sedate a horse to perform an action. “

– Annika ten Napel, holistic veterinarian and acupuncturist –

Stress response in the body
Stress is the body’s response to a stimulus or condition that causes tension. This can be positive or negative stress.

For example, we have positive stress when we prepare for a competition or while packing for a holiday. The body is then in a state of higher alertness. This form of stress is short-lived and the body quickly returns to a resting state.

We speak of negative stress when the stress is not in the interest of humans or animals and is experienced as a negative event. Causes that can cause stress in humans include noise, lack of sleep, drugs and alcohol, heat and prolonged mental stress. In other words: all situations that endanger the basic human needs. The basic human needs are: safety, health and love. I also dare to attribute these basic needs to horses. Love is of course a typical human concept, but it is clear that horses also have certain preferences / friendships. Consider, for example, the band of mare and foal. The response to stress is physiologically an emergency response for the body. The horse’s body is brought into a higher state of alertness in order to be able to react quickly, it is a flight or fight response.

There are 2 types of stress responses, a fast and a slow one.
The fast passes through the sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline
from the adrenal medulla. Adrenaline makes the body ready to fight or run. The heart rate and breathing increase, the pupils dilate and the blood supply shifts from the intestines to the muscles.

The slow passes through the HPA axis (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis), this is a cascade reaction that causes the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol (corticosteroid). This hormone ensures that sufficient energy is released to respond quickly to the stress stimulus and it also has an inhibiting effect on the stress response. With prolonged stress, the levels of cortisol and sugar in the blood increase for too long. The adrenal glands become exhausted. Cortisol, a corticosteroid, has an inhibitory effect on the immune system and thus becomes weakened. The intestinal flora can be disturbed and stomach ulcers can develop. Nerve damage can also occur. The high blood sugar levels cause a disruption of the metabolism, resulting in an increased risk of laminitis, cramped muscles, incorrect storage of fats and laminitis.

Symptoms of stress

  • Increased heart rate
  • Fast and shallow breathing, some horses even stop breathing for a moment
  • Vibrate
  • Eye white visible
  • Cramped muscles / shortened walking
  • Flapping the lips
  • Stable vices such as crib biting, air sucking and weaving
  • Teeth grinding
  • Yawn often
  • Slow
  • No contact, stand in the corner of the stable
  • Aggressive behavior, easily irritated
  • Raised nose / lips
  • Large nostrils
  • Snoring / blowing
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Irregular heat by mares
  • Sweating
  • Slimming, despite a good appetite
  • To lick
  • Unexpected behavior (“overspronggedrag”)
  • Often sick
  • Fungal infections and other parasitic infections
  • Often peeing (small amount)
  • Often thin and watery manure

Pay attention! Sometimes signals can be very subtle, especially with internal focused horses

Immerse yourself in the horse’s natural behavior. A horse is a herd animal, in the herd there is a clear social structure / hierarchy. The horse spends 12-17 hours of the day eating, 6-10 hours resting. A horse travels 5-10 km per day (equivalent to about 40-80 laps in the riding school).

Causes for stress, the “stress checklist”:
1. Man as a predator.
Horses are prey animals and we are predators. So make sure you have a good relationship of trust and deal with the horse in peace. Pay close attention to touch!
2. Human emotions.
Horses are very sensitive animals. We can transfer our emotions, nerves for a competition, for example, can cause stress to the horse. Get rid of your daily baggage and stress before going to your horse. Consider why horses are often used for therapies and the disabled.
3. Riding horses.
The withers are one of the most sensitive areas of the horse. Predators often attack at the withers. Moreover, horses cannot see us when we are sitting on their back or standing behind them, always keep this in mind.
4. Transport and leaving home.
Horses are herd animals and very attached to a fixed environment. Transporting a horse also causes stress. After a long journey, for example, horses have a higher risk of infections. Always drive calmly and carefully with a trailer and practice regularly with short stretches, this can prevent a lot of trouble if a horse has to be transported.
5. Weaned too young.
Weaning is a very stressful and traumatic event in an animal’s life. Change of feed and no more mother. Try to do weaning as gradually as possible. Try to leave the foals in a known area and to take the mother away longer and more often. We advise owners to leave the foal with the mare for up to 6 months, often the mare lets the foal drink less and less and the foal goes its own way. Stable vices, such as air sucking, are most commonly developed around weaning!
6. Riding and training a too young horse
A horse of 3.5 years is only 10 years old in human years. More and more horses we see are still very young at the age of 3, both mentally and physically. Invest in your young horse, then you can enjoy it longer. At a young age, work on the confidence of the horse rather than on a performance. Not so long ago, the sport horses were at their best above their 10th year of life. Now everything has to be done quickly and quickly.
7. One-sided work
Do not stay too long by practicing on the same, by adding variety in the work you keep yourself and the horse fresh. Riding outside should not be missing in your training, to prevent boredom. Confirm the basic work and reward!
8. Pain!
Many horses walk around in pain. Pain is a major cause of stress. Many horses we see have back problems. Many animal species show no pain because that is a way of survival, weak animals are expelled from the herd or are the first to be caught by a predator. An important cause of pain is an ill-fitting saddle. How many horses bite  while fasten the saddle, that is a signal! Other common causes of pain in horses are, for example: stomach and intestinal ulcers, abdominal pain (colic), pain in the teeth and headache. When in doubt, an expert will have your horse and / or saddle examined.
9. Social contact.
A horse is a herd animal! Animals need social structure. Horses in particular are in great need of physical contact. Horses also play with each other a lot and besides that they like it, it is a good way to relax the body.
10. Changing herds.
Horses have a clear hierarchy, regular changes in the herd causes a lot of unrest because a new balance has to be established in the group every time.
11. Not or too little outside.
In nature, a horse is grazing and walking most of the day, the body is completely made for that. The circulation in the legs of a standing horse is very poor (think of stable legs), the circulation starts through movement. The intestinal motility is also reduced in a stationary horse (with an increased risk of colic as a result!). Many horses are indoors 23 hours a day, that is really not possible! Many horses develop because of this
stable vices / stereotypes from boredom / stress. Research has shown that if horses are not allowed to perform those stereotypes, it causes stress. So try to prevent it, rather than prohibit it.
12. Not enough space.
Often times, stables are too small for a horse to lie down and get up again easily. Many horses are regularly locked up in the stable, with all that that entails. I regularly see horses with pelvis and SI problems after laying down. A horse can sleep standing or lying down. Standing horses only sleep lightly and shallowly. To really rest well, they also need to be able to sleep deeply on a regular basis, also known as REM (“Rapid Eye Movement”) sleep. Horses only make REM sleep when they can lie down, as this is accompanied by total muscle relaxation. Therefore, make sure you have a sufficiently large stable with a soft bottom. The horse must dare to lie down!
13. Too much anxiety.
Many boarding stables are busy all day long. The light is on for a long time and sometimes there is also a radio on all day, horses have a more sensitive hearing than humans. In nature, a horse sleeps several short times a day. They must have and receive the rest for that in the stable.
14. Wrong place in the stable.
Horses often prefer other horses. Sometimes they stand next to another horse that they don’t “like”. This can cause a lot of stress. By looking closely at horses it is often very easy to improve on them and it can make a world of difference!
15. The atmosphere in the stable
Create a good atmosphere in the stable! This is important for people but also for the horses! Remember horses are very sensitive.
16. Loss or departure of a congener
Sometimes unavoidable, but do realize that some horses are very attached to each other. Try to find a buddy again as soon as possible.
17. Building style and material
The color of the barns can already influence animal behavior. In bulls, for example, the color red in the barn appears to generate aggression and more testosterone than a green environment. This is also known to humans. Lighting can have an influence, for example the blinking of fluorescent lighting. Daylight and good ventilation are very important! The most ideal stables for me are stables with multiple windows or top hatches. The stables must offer the possibility for the horses to have physical contact with each other, but must be large enough so that the horses also have “private space”.
18. Medical procedures.
Provide a good veterinarian / farrier etc who will treat your animal with peace of mind and respect. More haste less speed. I hear so often that a horse can no longer be vaccinated because he already panics at the sight of the vet’s car. Also use the right medication for a condition. Do not experiment with resources yourself, a good diagnosis requires an appropriate remedy!
19. Nutrition.
Roughage is the main feed of a horse. Make sure the horse has something to nibble on for as many hours a day as possible. In nature, the horse is eating almost all day, so there is a constant supply of food in the stomach and intestines. When chewing, saliva is released, this has a neutralizing effect on the stomach and, moreover, chewing has a calming effect on the animal. The consequences of stomach ulcers have already been mentioned. Feed from the ground and not from a rack, this will prevent neck / back problems. Preferably also feed concentrates that the horse has to chew on, such as a grain mix or muesli. Biks are too easy for the horse to chew, some horses don’t even chew and just swallow it. As a result, there is also too little saliva production. Concentrated food increases the acidity of the stomach and the appendix, with an increased risk of stomach and intestinal ulcers.
20. Genetic determination.
Some breeding lines are more sensitive to stress than others.
21. Doping.
If doping is necessary to achieve a higher performance, your horse is not or not yet suitable for what you want from the horse. I don’t think it’s ethical to push a horse to a higher performance. We have to know for ourselves what we do with our own body, but a horse cannot decide for itself …
23. Geopathy.
Geopathy has to do with earth rays, but also with cell phone masts. These radiations can have a major impact on animal welfare. Problems as a result of this are often visible in horses because they are often in the same place, in contrast to humans who can still move around freely. If we want to keep our horses as stress-free as possible, then maybe we should leave them completely alone. But since we want to enjoy and bond with the horse, we can at least do our best to do it the best we can.

So take a good look at your horse and its environment, keep looking for improvement and enjoy the result:

more relaxed and healthier horses!

© Drs. AC ten Napel
Den Hoek, Holistic practice for animals & humans.

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