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God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.
Quote Mark

R. B Cunningham Graham


Spotting the signs of stress

Early recognition of stress in our horses helps not only as a guide to improving their welfare but can also allows us to avoid potentially dangerous situations.


Stress is a term which is actually coined from structural engineering, when talking about the loads and pressure that can be withstood by certain building materials before they break. So when we talk about stress in ourselves or our horses we are by inference talking about the build up of pressure, physical or mental, and how much pressure it takes before something snaps. This pressure can be placed on us by the environment or factors in the environment and it can be physical, like a lack of sleep or a lion chasing us, or it can be mental like a the pressure felt proceeding a big event or meeting a work deadline.


Stress is of course useful to humans, at least in the correct levels. It is designed to create motivation for food foraging, preparation for the flight or fight response, defence of our loved ones, property and possessions. Essentially, it is a set of coping strategies that allows us to deal with the difficulties of survival. Much of our human stress is now only mental, where perceived threats and environmental stress caused by people's behaviour (ours and other peoples) are seen by our bodies as real and are dealt with the same the same way as physical threats.


Through the fight mechanism or flight mechanism the correct level of stress serves similar functions in horses, causing them to search out food, avoid difficult or dangerous situations, act defensively and of course be successful in the acquisition of mates.


So how does excess stress show up in our horses? The stress chemicals that are released in times of conflict, fear, pain or confusion are designed to prepare the animal for fight or flight, therefore any behaviour which is designed for use in the flight or fight response can be indicators of stress in horses. Whether the stress the animal experiences could be considered “good or bad” depends on the length of exposure to the stressor, whether there is an opportunity to release or escape from the stress and the individual nature and experiences of the animal involved. One horse with a fearful nature may from previous experience, find trailer loading very stressful, where as another experienced and more confident animal may only experience a very mild stress during loading.


If you consider a human in a stressed state, you see somebody who is generally more agitated, is likely to fidget and be unable to sit peacefully or quietly for any length of time. They may be someone who might be less tolerant, more snappy with other people or argumentative. We would see someone who deals with conflicts or problems either by avoiding them all altogether or by having excessive arguments and fights with those people around them. These two fight or flight responses as can be seen in equines in the same way.


As the balance begins to tip from normal, useful stress levels, to increasingly higher levels we see our horses begin to exhibit unusual or out of character behaviours, usually related to movement of some form. As creatures of movement, they are flight animals after all, the stress chemicals are produced to predominately create preparation to engage the flight response, this preparation for flight starts to show up as movement, the animal becomes a “coiled spring.” When this natural response to stress is prevented either by lead rope, reigns, stable confinement or paddock fencing this desire for movement is redirected into other behaviours.


In simple terms, this movement may be an out of character behaviour such as a normally very willing horse not wanting to be caught. May be a normally relaxed horse starts to put his ears back and fidgets even threatening to kick while their tack is being fitted. In contrast under prolonged bouts of chronic stress, the horse that is normally active and alert may become dull and depressed. Changes in behaviour are vital clues that have to be seen and recognised as potential indications that something may be wrong. The key is in knowing your animal well enough to spot early changes in behaviour before they escalate.


While out riding an increased pace of forward movement may indicate the animal’s level of stress is increasing, as can holding the head higher as if looking for predators or exaggerated head movement, reluctance to move forward and a slowing of pace can all indicate changing levels of stress.


Stabled horses may show signs of stereotypic behaviour such as, box walking, weaving, and walking, repeatedly backing away from and walking up to the stable door, head tossing and more general signs of an aggressive nature such as pinning their ears back, bite or kick threats.


If we do not listen to the signs of stress they will continue to escalate into behaviour such as, jogging or trotting at a walking pace, napping behaviour, rearing, bucking or bolting. On the ground we may see them escalate to these similar flight responses and also more of the fight responses of actual kicking and biting.


One of the major cause of stress in equines is conflict. Equines are not good at dealing with the conflict created between two decisions; these may be choices that the animal has to make between different environmental situations. This conflict can be things such as wanting to be with people and receive attention due to previous good experience, but due to current bad handling be very nervous of approaching their human. Another example could be when picking up a foot, not wanting to kick a human but being in pain and wanting to put your foot down again. If the choice is between two negative consequences such as jumping fence which is uncomfortable or painful because of the riders position or poor use of hands and not jumping the fence which would receive smack from the riders whip, or where the animal wants to run away from a scary stimulus, but the riders legs and the bit prevents escape then having to choose between these similar negative situations causes the animal to become stressed. They want to runaway but they can't, this conflict can then spill over into flight or fight behaviour.


One way to avoid stress is to allow the animal to deal with the confines and challenges of domestication. This can only be done through good training practices, a shaping plan which prepares your animal for all manner of necessities of domestication from farrier and vet to riding and loading. Most importantly susceptibility to stress can be reduced by building problem-solving capacity and confidence in the animal.  Equines that have been correctly exposed to the obstacles and conditions they might face during their lives through the process of long lining and training on the ground will have much healthy engagement of the stress mechanism and therefore will be  more relaxed, calm and more confident.


Most of our unwanted behaviours in our equines are a natural response to deal with the problems they are faced with so next time you horse is doing something you don’t want them too look for signs of unhelpful stress and if you spot any signs of unhelpful stress it is very important to avoid further escalation of the stress response by listening to your animal, rather than trying and override their fears and forcing them forward making them deal with stressful situations. Forcing the issue will increase stress and it is likely that the horse’s behaviour will escalate as they try to solve the problem they perceive using their natural flight behaviour such as bolting or behaviours such as rearing, spinning and napping.


In our next article we will look more specifically at the causes and treatments for napping and how we can pick up the signs of stress under saddle. 

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