Are you stressed about stress?

Just like humans, there are some horses who don't cope with life's challenges quite as well as they might. They can experience apprehension or stress when faced with situations that will not faze their fellow stable-mates. While some degree of stress is normal and can have a positive impact on the horse's responsiveness, pushed too far, stress can lead to short and long-term behavioural problems.

While it is relatively easy to understand the additional apprehension a horse may feel when at a competition or in a new environment, many owners are at a loss for why their animal appears stressed by the most mundane situations which are part and parcel of a horse's lifestyle; travelling, shoeing and hacking-out.

In the wild, horses live out in the open, grazing and exercising freely within the structured hierarchy, and safety, of the herd. As a rule, our horses' lifestyles are usually a far cry from their natural way of life and some animals find adapting harder than others.

A horse's natural instincts are sometimes hard to deal with, especially if you are in the middle of the show ring, mucking out or the farrier is busy at work! Many of us will be familiar with the signs of short-term stress in our horses such as restlessness, whinnying or squealing, shying, carrying their head high and tossing their tail wildly, often accompanied by flared nostrils and snorting, and in some cases uncontrollable shaking or trembling.

Common reasons for this type of stress can be due to separation from a stable-mate, apprehension at an event or more specifically related to certain management procedures such as farrier visits, training/breaking-in, weaning or travelling. Unfortunately, some horses who experience stress over a prolonged period of time are at risk of developing behavioural problems. Common behavioural signs to watch for which may suggest something in your horse's life is causing him or her distress include a change in demeanour, possible loss of appetite and unpredictable behaviour when you are riding such as bucking, rearing or bolting. In the stabled horse, box walking and weaving are two common signs that all is not as it should be.

If your horse is demonstrating signs of stress contact Colin and he will firstly check there is no medical condition at the root of the problem. As you'd expect, common signs of stress are similar or the same as those exhibited by a horse in pain. Checking that pain is not the cause of the behaviour will help to put your mind at rest and presents an opportunity to discuss management options with Colin such as training or environmental changes, which may be something as simple as a new stable layout. Once stress has been identified as the cause, it's worth keeping a diary to see if you can identify the trigger points that are causing the behaviour and to see if a pattern is occurring. In many cases, there are some straightforward steps that can be taken to help manage a stressed horse that is demonstrating behavioural problems:

§ Exercise - Limited opportunity to move about freely and exercise can lead to a very frustrated animal. A stabled horse needs to be exercised everyday (unless on box rest) either ridden or turned out in the field.

§ Boredom - Some horses are more interested in the world than others and need greater stimulation. A bored horse will often become stressed and demonstrate a range of behavioural issues. Provide specialist toys such as a horseball to help provide stimulation but couple this with an increase in exercise and/or turn out time.  

§ Feeding - If stabled, try feeding smaller, lower energy feeds at least four times a day at regular intervals to try and mimic the feeding pattern of horses in the wild who move and graze throughout the day.

§ Isolation - Horses are herd animals and feeling part of a group is vital for their sense of wellbeing. If another horse or pony is not viable, other animals such as sheep, llama or goat make adequate alternatives.

§ Nervous disposition - Horses are naturally curious but many do not like new experiences foisted upon them. Gently introduce your horse to new sights, sounds and smells.

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If you find that your horse's stress, whether short or long-term, cannot be addressed through management techniques or a change in environment, you may want to consider using an appropriate natural supplement, such as new Zylkène Equine. Available as a palatable apple flavoured powder from Equitait Veterinary Practice, it is simply mixed into feed once-daily and can be administered specifically for one-off stressful situations that your horse may have issue with such as routine dentistry (teeth rasping), travelling, breaking or training. Alternatively where there are chronic behavioural issues with your horse it can be given on a continuous basis in consultation with your vet.

For more information about managing stress in your horse or pony and techniques you could implement contact us on 01361 889106.

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