How to calm a stressed horse

How to calm a stressed horse

Horses can suffer from anxiety and stress, which can affect how they learn and perform. We explore the issue of anxiety in horses.

Just like us, horses can suffer from stress and anxiety when faced with certain situations. Also similar to humans, stress and anxiety increase the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can have negative impacts on a horse’s health.

Horses that are chronically anxious are more likely to suffer from illnesses such as gastric ulcer syndrome, weight loss and depression, so it’s important to work out the cause of the anxiety and do what we can to alleviate it.

Causes of anxiety in horses

There are many things that can cause anxiety in horses. These include:

  • A sudden change in your horse’s routine or environment, such as moving to a new yard, or being put on box rest.
  • Social challenges, such as losing an equine companion, having limited access to other horses or introducing new horses to a herd.
  • Transporting your horse, as not all horses enjoy travelling.
  • Changes in your horse’s feeding regime, such as suddenly restricting feed or forage.
  • Weaning foals from their mothers.
  • Being poorly or in pain, especially if the horse’s pain isn’t acknowledged and they are still expected to work.
  • For some horses, competing.
  • Visits from the vet, farrier and dentist, especially if they have had a bad experience in the past.

Signs that your horse is stressed

  • Pacing the stable or paddock
  • Pawing the floor or banging the door of their stable
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Increased heart and breathing rate with flared nostrils
  • Passing droppings more frequently, which may become loose
  • High head and tail carriage and snorting
  • Being aggressive with ears back and tail swishing
  • Calling loudly to other horses
  • Tossing their head

It’s worth noting that all horses are individuals, and while some may show all these signs of anxiety, others may not show any. It’s important, therefore, to know your horse and notice any changes in behaviour or health that could be a sign of stress and anxiety.

Minimising anxiety and stress

The good news is that are lots of ways to help reduce your horse’s anxiety. One of the big things to consider is that horses relish predictability, so keeping their routine the same every day in terms of when they are fed, when they get turned out and when they are exercised will help your horse feel more secure. It’s also been shown that horses like to be handled by the same carers, although this isn’t always possible. Sometimes changes are necessary, but make them gradually, if possible.

It’s also important to ensure that your horse’s basic needs are met. Do they have plenty of turnout and exercise? Are they able to spend time socialising with other horses? Is their environment enriched with lots of fun and interesting things? Ensuring they are free from pain and illness will also help to prevent stress and anxiety, so regular vet, farrier and dental visits, as well as tack-fit checks, will all help.

‘Ideally, anxious horses should be fed a high-fibre diet, using oil as a slow-release energy source where needed so as to minimise dietary starches and sugars, which can be linked to excitable behaviour,’ says Juliette Edmonds, Petplan Equine Ambassador and vet.

How to train an anxious horse

Juliette discusses how understanding your horse’s anxiety could improve the effectiveness of your training.

‘Nervous horses are generally looking for direction,’ says Juliette. ‘A nervous horse wouldn’t be a herd leader in the wild. Instead, they would look for guidance from a leader and, in the case of horse-human interaction, they’ll look for guidance from their rider.’

So, if you’re handling a nervous horse, Juliette advises acting like a herd leader: ‘If you’re confident and calm, and reinforce your horse’s actions with confident aids, they’ll automatically feel as though their environment is calmer and will believe that everything is alright,’ she says.

Six tips for working with anxious horses

1. Give clear aids

‘It’s vital that you give a nervous horse clear aids and that they understand the basic instructions,’ Juliette says. ‘A horse who is actively fearful will not learn at all, however, those who are prone to being fearful can be trained and learn new things as long as they are in a calm state of mind. Praising a horse when they have done what you ask will not only reinforce the good behaviour, but also instil confidence in them.’

2. Remain calm and confident

Similarly, if you stay calm and confident in any situation, a more fearful horse will have faith in you and will believe that their environment is calmer, too. ‘Try to avoid them feeling like you’re not in control of the situation,’ Juliette says. ‘That’s when a fearful horse’s first instinct to take flight will usually kick in. I find using a calm voice to talk to a nervous horse helps a lot.’

3. Ride forward

‘Always ride a nervous horse forward with your legs,’ Juliette recommends. ‘In a scary situation riders will often take their legs off and lift their hands, which sends signals to the horse that there is something to be frightened of. A confident rider will encourage the horse forward by allowing with their hands and driving with their legs, subconsciously telling the horse that what they’re being asked to do is safe.’

4. Repetition is key

Repetition and gradual improvement are key factors for training a fearful horse. ‘For example, if a horse is nervous about jumping, start by working them on a circle over a pole that’s laid flat on the floor,’ says Juliette. ‘Then, slowly raise one end of the pole and then the other, until eventually you’re jumping one foot, then two foot, and so on.’

5. Chase scary things

When introducing a new and potentially fearful object, encourage your horse to ‘chase’ it. ‘Hold it in front of them, then move it away ahead of them so that they take a step forward towards it,’ says Juliette. ‘Instead of being scared, they’ll start to feel in control if it moves away from them.’

6. Top up confidence levels

Juliette finds it useful to ‘top up’ confidence levels by returning frequently to exercises that the horse enjoys/finds easy. ‘Sometimes horses feel under too much pressure, especially when learning something new or taking the next step up in training, and that can create a crisis in confidence. So, I always go back to an easy session after asking for something more challenging, to build their confidence back up.’

Do you have any tips for calming your stressed horse? If so, we’d love to find out. Head to our Facebook page and let us know.