Stress Management in Horses

In their natural state, horses roam freely and feed almost constantly. They live in groups and have a social hierarchy within the group. All of their senses are important to them as prey animals and as social animals. Vision and hearing protect them; taste, touch and smell are used for communication as well as for sensing danger. They are intelligent and have long memories.

It is little surprise then, that they get stressed when we keep them on their own, trapped in a small space, don’t allow or impose a hierarchy, feed them twice a day, brush their sensitive skin vigorously, make them stay still almost all of the time and then demand intense exercise for a short period; and confuse them by praising them when they run away from the stalls as fast as they can (like good prey animals) but punish them when they spook (like good prey animals). Horses may also be stressed by long journeys, traumatic events and incorrect feeding.

A stressed horse can be more difficult to handle, perform erratically and develop bad habits that others copy.

Indicators of stress may include stereotypic behaviours such as cribbing, windsucking and box walking. Stress is also implicated in equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS). It is thought that 90% of racehorses have gastric ulcers and over 60% of horses in other competitive disciplines are similarly affected, mainly due to a combination of intense exercise and intermittent, high concentrate feeding regimes. Your horse may show signs of EGUS by a variety of vague symptoms, including any of these:

·      reduced stride length,

·      appetite change,

·      altered feeding habits e.g. dunking hay, slow eating

·      change in attitude,

·      lethargy,

·      pain on girthing,

·      dull coat,

·      poor condition,

·      intermittent performance.

These symptoms are often disregarded or misdiagnosed, and can only be properly assessed with endoscopy (the vet passes a tube down the horse’s throat to look at the stomach lining. It is important to look at all part of the stomach, as racehorses tend to ulcerate in the squamous part, whereas sport horses tend to ulcerate in the glandular part, but not always). There are drugs that can heal stomach ulcers (omeprazole and sucralfate) but they don’t address the underlying stressors. Supplements that coat the stomach lining, such as pronutrin, can help with maintenance. However, by thinking about what may be stressing your horse, there are plenty of changes that you can make to prevent EGUS.

Stable Management

Managing stress effectively needs a good understanding of horse physiology and behaviour. Allow your horse to graze or have continuous access to forage such as hay, if possible. As well as providing forage, think about where it is placed in the stable – just because the haynet tying ring is at the back, doesn’t mean that this is where the horse would choose to eat. Similarly, if feeding horses in a barn environment, you are imposing a hierarchy if you always feed from the nearest stable to the furthest – nearest horse = top of the pecking order, regardless of his social status when in a group.

The horse’s gut needs a steady input to protect the stomach lining as it produces acid constantly, regardless of whether there is food in it or not. Fibrous food, such as grass and hay, also helps to maintain the horse’s water and electrolyte balance, which is a particularly important factor for horses competing in endurance disciplines.

The horse has an internal reservoir, the colon, from which he can rehydrate during exercise. For jump racing and cross country it is best to starve for 3 hours before competing, so that the colon is not full of food and the fluid can easily be taken up for hydration. However, a handfull of chaff up to half an hour before competing coats the stomach, won’t arrive in the colon till afterwards and both maintains blood supply to the gut and increases blood supply to the muscles, boosting performance (legally!). Immediately after competing, rehydrate with warm salty water (the sweaty bucketful from washing him down is ideal) to prevent muscle aches and stiffness.

It is best to feed concentrates after forage and with chaff for optimum digestion. Unlike us, horses do not digest proteins and starches/sugars easily, so these should form only a limited part of the diet and be fed in small quantities several times a day, if needed at all. Beet pulp has sugars in it but is also high in fibre and so is easier to digest than grains. Unsaturated fats (50ml corn oil or rapeseed oil twice a day helps heal ulcers) are a good energy source for horses and many of the feed companies have now increased the fat content of their mixed feeds/cubes to reflect this. Horses also tend to be less fizzy when their energy is coming from oils rather than protein and starch.

It is thought likely that being overweight is also a factor in the development of ulcers. Equally, ulcers can cause weight loss, so monitor your horse’s weight and try to keep him trim.

Think about your horse’s environment from his point of view – a prey animal and a social animal. Also consider whether he is warm enough, or too warm, which can be stressful. If the horse has to travel alone, put up a mirror so that he can see ‘another’ horse. Stable mirrors can help calm a lone horse.

So, there are plenty of changes that can be made to the home environment and the feeding regime. Many thanks to Richard Hepburn MRCVS for his knowledge and research on EGUS.

Osteopathic Management

What about when a stressful event occurs, such as an incident out hacking, during a competition or when travelling? What if an event in the past has affected your horse so that he still gets stressed by it today? This is where osteopathy may be able to help your horse to recover by calming his ‘fight or flight’ response and releasing any retained strains caused by the event.