Equine stress – what does it mean, how do you recognise it and what should you do about it? Behaviourist, Anna Saillet, investigates in January Horse&Rider
There’s no universally agreed definition of equine stress, but it can generally be defined as a real or implied threat that may have a psychological or physiological effect on your horse.
When your horse is presented with a stressful situation or experience, his body shifts all its energy towards either fleeing from or fighting off the threat. Because he’s a prey species, his most likely response is flight. However, if that’s not possible for whatever reason, he may revert to the fight response.
Fight or flight
When the fight or flight response occurs, everything in your horse’s body is rapidly prepared to allow him to make a quick exit. The sympathetic nervous system is activated and signals the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenalin and cortisol.
An increase in stress is likely to occur when your horse is faced with a perceived threat, or when he’s unable to predict or control the situation or environment he’s in. Thanks to recent advances in equine science, there are now many reported indicators of stress in horses that can be used to help you recognise when there may be a cause for concern.
Spotting the signs
Behavioural indicators of stress include…
- increased defecation (often of loose consistency)
- altered facial expression, which may include pinned-back ears, increased wrinkles around the muzzle, facial tension, triangulation of the upper eyelid and dilated nostrils
- rapid, tense swishing of the tail
- reactive behaviour during handling or exposure to novel objects or environments
- head tossing or shaking
Ask the experts
If you’re concerned your horse may be experiencing too much stress but are finding it difficult to identify the cause, contact a qualified equine behaviour consultant. Equine behaviour consultants work closely with your vet and are trained to be behavioural detectives, so they can help you identify the cause of your horse’s behavioural problems and overcome them.
For more information on why your horse might be stressed, ways you can measure his stress and ways you can prevent stress, get your copy of January Horse&Rider out now