Vet’s tips to help calm an anxious horse

  • Is your horse stressy and anxious? Simple management strategies should help him settle, explains Kieran O’Brien MRCVS

    While many horses adapt well to the limitations of domestication, some find coping more difficult. These are generally thought of as stressy types. Such animals may show behavioural traits such as volatility, restlessness, poor trainability and stereotypies (stable “vices”), or veterinary problems such as stomach ulcers, all of which reflect their maladaptation.

    Although skilled management can ameliorate many of these issues, there are individuals in every breed – especially thoroughbreds and Arabs – for whom special adaptations must be made to keep them sane and happy.

    As well as those who are intrinsically hyper-reactive, horses who are otherwise more placid can become stressed and anxious when placed in certain environments – on box rest, for example, or when separated from favoured companions.

    Two’s company

    Stressy behaviour often stems from unrecognised and perhaps very subtle pain, typically caused by a problem in the back or limbs.

    A comprehensive vet examination, both in hand and under saddle, is essential. A management appraisal may then be necessary, starting with the horse’s lifestyle.

    It has been shown that horses kept alone spend 10% less time eating and are three times more active than if stabled with another horse. While individual stabling is usually necessary for practical and safety reasons, enabling visual and tactile contact with an adjacent horse via a “talk hole” or even a grille between stables is far preferable to visual contact alone.

    One study showed an 86% reduction in weaving when stabled horses were offered nose-to-nose contact. Owners who have noticed some affiliation between pairs of horses in a paddock should ensure they are stabled in adjacent stables, if possible.

    Although a small proportion of horses react aggressively when first introduced to a stable mirror (suggesting that they do not recognise the reflection as their own), most accept them readily and may spend many hours close to them. Mirrors have also been shown to reduce weaving.

    An anxious horse will benefit from maximum turnout. Many experienced riders compete their horses at a high level directly from grass, when the weather is appropriate. Grass intake should be carefully controlled (by strip grazing, for example) to prevent obesity, and necessary shade and fly relief provided.

    If horses cannot be turned out together, paddocks can be divided into sections. While it may be tempting to provide a pony as a companion, preventing laminitis can be a major task if he is allowed to range freely with the horse.

    The stressy type should be exercised daily, in conjunction with turnout, to release pent-up energy. He may be better alongside a more placid horse, or even with a more experienced rider – as his own rider may be transmitting non-verbal anxiety cues, such as increased rein tension. If a trial run reveals that he is happier in more confident hands, rider issues should be addressed.

    It has been shown that exercised horses sleep on their side for longer than box-rested horses. Every effort should be made to provide an optimal sleeping environment, with a large bedded area and a deep bed.

    Removing unpredictability from a horse’s life may have a calming effect. Some horses benefit from a strict feeding, exercise and turnout regime, and may prefer being kept at a yard where there is very little irregular daytime activity.

    Comfort food

    A horse’s blood glucose level peaks some two hours after a starchy feed, such as a mix containing cereal grains and molasses.

    As it is around this time that most horses are ridden, it has been suggested that this “sugar rush” is responsible for bad behaviour. As 12 separate research studies in children have failed to show any link between blood glucose and behavioural changes, it is now generally accepted that the “sugar high” concept is a myth.

    Studies have strongly implicated a link, however, between a lack of the normal diversity of micro-organisms in the human digestive system (known as the microbiome) and issues such as severe depressive illness. This “gut-brain” axis is the subject of much current research, including in horses.

    In a recent study, horses were fed either a hay-only diet or a diet where 44% of the hay was replaced with barley. Not only did the intestinal microbiome alter significantly in the barley-fed horses, but their frequency of “blowing” (the startle response) when exposed to novel objects was significantly greater – that is, they found the objects more stressful.

    We are only just beginning to probe the diet-behaviour relationship in horses, yet we do have enough evidence to recommend giving temperamental types feeds that are high in oil and low in starch. This will also help prevent gastric ulcers, another result of stress.

    Owners often use calming products to solve what they perceive as behavioural problems in their horses. These products seem to be increasingly popular in all disciplines, although it is difficult to find much independent scientific evidence – rather than anecdotal reports – proving that they work.

    If a calmer does work, it is worth asking yourself whether the substance is restoring an abnormally behaving horse to his normal state, or suppressing his inherent exuberant, difficult or even downright dangerous behaviour. If the former, attempts should be made to find the true underlying cause, rather than relying on a substance to put in his feed.

    Research on calmers has shown a strong placebo effect on the rider. There is a need, however, for further independent research on the effect of these products on horses.

    Trip hazards

    Experience suggests that the most common cause of travel stress is the design of horse trailers.

    In most cases, the partition means that the horse must stand facing forwards, confined to a space barely wider than his body. Removal of the partition to allow the horse to stand obliquely, if he wishes, and with a more wide-based stance, can have a dramatic effect.

    The horse should be tied as loosely as possible to the front, rather than at the side, of the trailer, so he can swing his head to counterbalance the movement of his hindquarters.

    His haynet should also be tied at the front, to prevent any further restriction of head movement. In addition, he may be happier with a small safety mirror or quiet company.

    “We adapted our ways to suit her”

    When Arab racing mare Johara Bint Shuwaiman arrived at the training yard run by Nikki Malcolm and her partner Nathan Sweeney, she came with a history of being “difficult” and had displayed major behavioural problems.

    “From the start, it was clear that Johara was a worrier,” says Nikki. “She was very stressy, she travelled badly and would stand in the yard with her eyes staring and her ears pricked.”

    Once veterinary issues, including gastric ulcers, had been ruled out, it was decided that the yard training regime would have to be adapted to Johara’s personality.

    “We did a huge amount of trotting and slow canter work to settle her before doing any fast work,” says Nikki, adding that Johara preferred to be worked alone. “She was turned out with company, as much as possible, and placed on a low starch/high oil feed along with a probiotic and antacid supplement.”

    Johara travelled to the racecourse with a quiet companion and was tacked up in the stableyard rather than the saddling boxes. The plan worked, as she won twice and achieved numerous placings.

    “There are certain horses that become stressed and upset when they lose control,” says Nikki. “Rather than trying to force them to fit in, the key is to adapt the management and training regime to suit them.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 21 May 2020