How to reduce your horse’s stress levels

  • A wild horse lives in a herd environment. He spends 60-70% of his time eating a wide mix of plants, trees and grasses, eats with his head lowered and wears no form of shoes, boots or blankets.

    He treks an average of 20 miles per day, mostly in walk and canter, with his neck outstretched, helping him balance over all sorts of rugged terrain.

    Few – if any – of these things will be familiar to domesticated equines.

    Today’s performance horse is more likely to be stabled for least 16hr a day, receive two or three meals of a high-energy concentrate (probably from a wall manger) and be exercised on a horse-walker or worked in a round outline on an artificial surface for more than an hour a day.

    We need to control our horses’ management regimes to produce them as athletes, but in making these lifestyle changes have created a plethora of unnatural illnesses and training issues.

    So what can we do to limit the effect of these changes on our horses’ well-being and to reduce their stress levels?

    1 Keep to a routine: horses thrive on consistency in all aspects of life, including management, feeding and exercise.

    2 Check that his tack, rugs, boots and shoes fit well: any form of unnatural equipment that we impose on horses will cause them stress if not comfortable and well maintained.

    3 Ask yourself is his diet right: most horses – unless they are in exceptionally hard work – do not need diets that are high in cereals and starch (the make-up of many competition mixes).

    4 React to behavioural changes – don’t just dismiss them.

    5 Be aware of your horse’s social needs: decide if he prefers company or his own space and tailor his living arrangements accordingly.

    To measure stress, scientists look at:

    • Core eyeball temperature: this is measured using infrared thermography cameras. An increase in core eyeball temperature correlates with stress and fear. This is very useful, as it does not require any equipment on the horse, which in itself can cause stress — the measurement can be taken at a distance. Scientists are currently using this technology to monitor stress levels in horses undergoing in-hand training. It is hoped that, in the future, its use will be extended to ridden work.
    • Salivary cortisol: cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”. Increased cortisol concentrations are used to quantify stress responses in animal welfare studies. It is most accurately measured in blood, but can also be sampled from saliva, which is less invasive.
    • Heart rate: heart rate increases as horses become more stressed.

    This infomation was originally published in H&H magazine (4 October 2012 and 4 January 2013)

    Read more about equine behaviour

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