A number of things can make horses stressed, like being alone, loading and riding in a trailer, veterinary care, farrier work, preparing for and going to shows, changes in weather, changes in the people caring for them, changes in routine such as a new stall or differing feeding schedule, stall rest due to injury or illness, and a stressed handler or rider. Horses express psychological stress in a number of ways.
Horses that are chronically psychologically stressed can start to lose weight. Since there are many reasons, such as heat stress, parasites, poor feed, and health problems, it’s necessary to look at all aspects of the horse’s care to troubleshoot weight loss.
Stall Walking and Other Vices
Stall walking is when a horse walks around a stall or walks back and forth along one wall repetitively. Weaving, cribbing, wood chewing, wall kicking, and fence walking are all signs of stress.
Most of us yawn when we are tired. It’s the way our bodies inhale a little extra oxygen to fuel our sleepy brain. Horses, however, don’t yawn for the same reason, nor is it an appeasement gesture, as in dogs. A study found that yawning may be a way for a horse to release endorphins. Yawning and most horses will do it several times in a row, is a sign that the horse was feeling stressed, and by yawning, is releasing the stress.
Some horses grind their teeth while stabled, some while ridden. Tooth grinding can be a sign of physical or physiological stress. If the horse has no other dental issues, it’s important to check for things like EGUS and other sources of chronic pain or stressful situations.
Many examples of poor behavior while ridden, can be caused by physiological or physical stress.1 Stress can be expressed through pawing, pulling, tail wringing, bucking, rearing, bolting, or being cold-backed.
Many performance horses suffer from equine ulcers. This can be in response to a stressful show schedule or other stresses.
Manure and Urination
A horse that is stressed can produce copious amounts of manure in a short time. Some may produce very runny manure. Horses will often urinate if stressed, and if they can’t relieve themselves because they can’t relax, such as in a trailer or when being ridden, they can become antsier.
Licking and Chewing
Natural horsemanship information has suggested that licking and chewing is a sign that a horse is accepting new information, such as during training. This action may be more like yawning in its function, as a way to release any stress it may have felt.
Colic symptoms can be caused by stress. A new herd mate or changes in routine, whether or handler can be enough to make some horses mildly colicky. Chronic stress can lead to EGUS which can cause colic symptoms.
Any number of stressful situations can cause a horse to tremble. Just the appearance of the veterinarian, farrier, or the arrival of a trailer in the yard can cause some horses to start shaking. Usually, as soon as the cause of the stress disappears, the trembling stops.
High Pulse and Respiration
When a horse becomes stressed, its pulse and respiration rates can increase, sometimes drastically. It’s important because of this to know your horse’s basic TPRs.
As a horse’s pulse and respiration may increase when stressed, it may start to sweat (and tremble). Work stress tends to show up between the horse’s legs, and under the saddle area and can eventually cover the horse’s whole body. It depends on how hard and long the horse works. A stressed horse may sweat in patches, however. Patches of sweat can also show the location of old injuries.
A worried horse often bolts its food. Bolting can lead to choking. This can happen in a stall or trailer.
Chewing or Biting
Some horses express stress by biting things, people, or other horses.
Alleviate Stress with Horse Manners
Much stress can be relieved by providing consistent schedules in natural environments, or as much so as possible. This means frequent turnout, with ample access to food, water, and companionship. Show stress is more difficult to remedy, but turnout and exercise between shows can be helpful.
Give horses time to acclimatize to new situations, such as new herd mates or stall locations. Do your best to give horses in trailers a smooth ride. It’s almost impossible to prevent all stress, but good basic care should take care of most.
Whether you have a horse to ride, drive, stress relief, or just as pasture décor, here are the eight ground manners your horse should have so both you and the horse are happy and safe. These manners are also essential for safety.
Lead Quietly in Hand
When you lead your horse he should walk beside you quietly paying attention to you. When you ask your horse to back up or step to the side he should float away from your cue like a rubber ducky being pushed in a bathtub, not like a brick being pushed through sand. Your horse shouldn’t pull you, barge ahead, hang back or push into you. Teaching your horse to lead properly is the basis for almost every other aspect of good ground manners.
Allow Every Body Part to Be Touched
Your horse should let you touch every part of his body. Often ears, muzzle, sheath or udder, between legs, and chest are sensitive spots that many horses object to having handled. But these areas need to be cleaned or dressed if they are injured. Teaching your horse to have these areas groomed and touched is essential.
Stand Quietly to Have Feet Handled
Horses need regular hoof care and they need their hooves trimmed every six to eight weeks. Teach your horse to stand quietly while you clean their hooves or while the farrier works with them. This ground manner makes cleaning and trimming time much less stressful, (and less painful) for all involved.
Accept Paste Wormers
Deworming your horse will help to keep in optimum health. Teaching your horse to accept paste wormers makes regular parasite control easier. It also makes the administering of other oral medications and some dental exams easier.
Get on a Trailer
A horse that won’t load on a trailer quietly isn’t just frustrating—it can be dangerous. You may not plan to leave your property with your horse. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t learn to get on a trailer. Emergencies can happen and you may have to take your horse to a vet clinic. Over the last few years, many people who never expected to, have had to evacuate because of fire, flooding, or other disasters. Or might change their mind about going to horse shows. And while you may never dream of selling your horse, the unexpected can happen. Often horses who don’t lead well, also don’t load well.
Even if your horse is just pasture decoration it still needs ground manners and will at some point need to be caught. There is nothing more frustrating than having planned an hour of riding, or training or other activity and have that time taken up pursuing your horse around the pasture. It can get costly too if the farrier or veterinarian is waiting. Things can get dangerous if your horse feels cornered and the only escape is over top of you. Teach your horse to be caught each and every time you want it.
Standing quietly to be tied, whether to a post, besides a trailer, a tree, or in cross ties is an absolutely essential ground manner. You’ll want to tie your horse to groom, clean hoofs, tack up or harness up, or just to keep him safely out of the way while you attend to other matters. Teach your horse to stand quietly while tied without fussing or pulling. Often horses that don’t stand quietly while tied don’t lead quietly either. Be a Responsible Horse Owner!