Do you struggle with your horse’s stress levels? Horses are creatures of habit and can struggle to acclimate to new environments, pasture-mates and social groups, or changes in their routine.

Stress and anxiety can also be caused by boredom or a lack of stimulation, inappropriate exercise programs, pain and discomfort, or changes in their feeding program.

Sometimes, stress and anxiety are temporary and resolve as your horse adjusts to their new lifestyle. Other times, stress is chronic and is a sign that something in your horse’s management needs to change to support a calm temperament.

Horses release the hormone cortisol in response to stressful situations. When levels of this hormone remain elevated for long periods without returning to baseline, this indicates chronic stress and can lead to negative impacts on health and behaviour.

In this article, we will discuss the signs and causes of stress in horses and provide you with a practical 18-point guide to reduce your horse’s stress and anxiety.

Why Do Horses Get Stressed?

Horses are locomotory prey animals that evolved and adapted to being on the move constantly. Feral horses roam vast plains and mountains, covering more than 20 miles per day in search of food and avoiding predation.

They are highly perceptive and keenly attuned to sensing threats in their environment. Horses also have a fast reaction time and rely on a well-honed flight response for survival, sometimes resulting in “spookiness”. [5]

Horses are also herd animals, living in socially dynamic groups both for breeding and protection from predators. They are extremely social animals that always require companionship from their own species. [1]

The natural lifestyle of the horse involves grazing for up to 20 hours per day on low-calorie grass, shrubs, and other vegetation. When not foraging or moving, horses spend time grooming, sleeping, breeding, and playing. [2]

Lifestyle of Domesticated Horses

Domesticated horses lead extremely different lives from their ancestors and modern-day feral counterparts. Horses are often stabled, with restricted social interaction and movement during the day.

In modern management settings, horses are often fed large meals consisting of high-calorie starch-rich feeds. These horses may receive little forage in their diets and can go long periods of the day between meals.

Starch-rich feeds lead to sharp spikes in energy and blood sugar levels, sometimes producing hot behaviour.

In addition, domesticated horses are often required to ride away from their yard or stable without other horses, such as when trail riding or schooling. This goes against their innate desire to remain as a herd for protection against predation.

These factors can interfere with the horse’s species-appropriate lifestyle. It is therefore understandable that our domesticated horses experience increased stress and anxiety levels.

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