Do you struggle with your horse’s stress levels? Horses are creatures of habit and are uneasy when in new environments, changing social groups, or when their routine is disrupted.

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 changes in 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 adapted to being on the move constantly. Feral horses roam vast plains and mountains, covering more than 20 miles per day whilst searching for 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 large groupings 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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Signs that Your Horse is Stressed

Stress is broadly characterized as the mental and physiological response to an external stimulus that is perceived as novel or threatening. [36]

A stressed horse can display many signs from mild unease to intense anxiety. Horses that are under chronic stress can also develop challenging health and behavioural issues, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Stereotypical behaviours
  • Aggression
  • Depression and lethargy
  • Undesirable riding and handling behaviour
  • Poor social interaction with other horses
  • Increased vocalisation
  • Yawning and tooth grinding
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • Flared nostrils

Stress Response

Your horse’s stress reaction may be triggered by physical stressors or by psychological stressors. [36]

Physical stressors include injury, illness, intense exercise or gut discomfort. Psychological stressors include circumstances that cause your horse to feel uncertain or afraid. [36]

In response to these stimuli, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and horses release higher levels of hormones known as catecholamines and glucocorticoids.

Catecholamines include epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenalin), which help to mediate the fight-or-flight response. These hormones increase your horse’s heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

Glucocorticoids include cortisol, which is widely known as the stress hormone. Cortisol helps the horse metabolize more energy from sugar (glucose).

When your horse faces an actual threat this endocrine response is beneficial, increasing alertness and energy so the horse can appropriately react. [36]

However, if the horse is chronically stressed, cortisol levels do not have a chance to reset leading to a number of potential negative outcomes. Horses with elevated blood levels of cortisol for long periods of time can experience: [36]

  • Aggressive or uncooperative behaviour
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular issues
  • Impaired immune function
  • Increased risk of gastric ulcers and digestive issues
  • Impaired growth rate
  • Inhibited reproductive function

Rules to Combat Stress

All horses experience stress differently. What causes significant stress in one horse might not provoke any reaction from another horse.

However, there are some general rules for minimizing stress in your horse’s life. The rules are known as the five freedoms of animal welfare: [7][8]

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

The five freedoms are the essential requirements that all animals need to ensure happiness and health. These freedoms must be maintained to keep stress levels low.

18 Ways to Reduce your Horse’s Stress Level

Here, we consider practices strategies to help relieve your horse’s stress and promote a calm demeanour.

These strategies center around providing your horse with a species-appropriate lifestyle based on the conditions they are evolutionarily adapted to thrive in.

You can also support your horse’s well-being by providing constant access to fresh water, a nutritious diet, a safe environment, regular veterinary check-ups and plenty of socialization.

There are also ways to help your horse cope with changing conditions and to desensitize them to potentially threatening situations. We will also consider supplements, management techniques, sleep, and training methods to further reduce your horse’s stress levels.

1) Check for Pain

If your horse is showing signs of stress, the first thing to check is whether they are experiencing any pain or discomfort. Pain is defined as a negative mental state caused by an aversive sensation from potential or actual tissue damage.

Pain can manifest itself in many ways, including: [3][4]

  • Increased reactiveness or heightened anxiety
  • Undesirable behaviour under the saddle
  • Undesirable behaviour during groundwork
  • Undesirable behaviour when stabled
  • Abnormal or aggressive behaviour when turned out with other horses
  • Expression of stereotypical behaviours
  • Depression, lethargy, or poor demeanour
  • General aggression or agitation

Pain can be caused by many things, including an ill-fitting saddle, bridle or bit pressure, dental pain, musculoskeletal pain, gastric ulcers and a whole host of other issues. [5][6]

Work with your veterinarian, farrier, physiotherapist, saddle fitter, and nutritionist to identify whether your horse may be in pain. Once you have addressed any sources of pain, move on to the other strategies listed below.

2) Give your Horse Friends

Horses are pack animals and have an innate desire to be with their own kind. When not grazing, moving, or sleeping, horses spend time grooming, playing, and interacting with one another.

Living as a herd helps horses feel safe from predators. Domestic horses still feel this threat even if they are not at risk of predation. [9][10]

Grooming also strengthens bonds between the herd and promotes parasite removal.

Horses form extremely strong social bonds with each other and can grieve when their friend dies or moves away. In some countries, it is actually illegal to keep a horse by itself.

Studies also show that positive social interactions are associated with lower cortisol and that disruptions in the social hierarchy increase cortisol levels. [40][41] Prolonged stress due to social disruption or change in access to resources can increase the risk of health problems, including