How many of us have been caught up in life's challenges causing us STRESS!
Stress can be mental as well as physical. It can cause weight gain, insomnia, headaches, body tension and many other issues in the body. When the body is stressed it increases the level of cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that throws the body into a complete meltdown. It is important to recognize when the body is in a state of stress and ways to reduce it. Mindfulness and breath work can be amazing for reducing stress. Low intensity exercise such as walking and yoga can also reduce cortisol levels. Being mindful is simply realising what your body wants and needs, then simply taking care of yourself. If exercise and meditation isn't your thing go have a bath, spend time with family, anything that relaxes your state of mind and brings you back to HAPPINESS! A lot of horse lovers would say that spending time with horses is a great way to wind down and relax, for us great, however have you ever considered that horses can get stressed too??
It's crazy right! A horse being stressed how is this possible?
Well, they have hormones just like us and that pesky hormone CORTISOL strikes again!
Horses are flight animals. Therefore, if a threat is present their first instinct is to run away from the situation. Most likely they would have heard or smelt the flying feed bag in the air before you even get a chance to see it and prevent your horse jumping through the air.
Not only can the horse experience mental stress from various situations, stress can also have effects on the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, parasympathetic nervous system as well as the autonomic nervous system.
Every discipline in the equestrian world can potentially cause some form of stress. Racehorses can experience this from limited oxygen capacity when having to run at a fast pace. A dressage horse may become stressed from an unnatural head carriage. Any thing that a horse is asked to do can cause stress. It is how we as owners conduct ourselves to recognize their behavioural symptoms to prevent stress.
The way we communicate with the horse is EXTREMELY important. If a good horse-rider connection is present then the horse is more than likely going to trust you and conduct what you are asking. Riders can create stress from the way the horse is ridden, being unbalanced, throwing the horse off balance is one example.
One of the biggest indications of a stressed horse is it's physical appearance. Muscle wastage can occur even if the horse is being fed appropriately as well as exercised. Their coat will be dull without any shine and can even fall out in certain areas. Pain is also associated with stress. Injuries can be caused by a stress put on the horse's body. An injured horse is also very likely to experience muscle wastage. Every horse has certain barriers that limit the amount of exercise they can do or the discipline that suits them the most. If pushed past these barriers, stress rises, injuries can occur and the horse-rider connection is compromised. Gut health in a horse can also be affected creating digestive issues; a stressed horse can have an increased level of acid in the stomach which results in gastric ulcers.
Symptoms of a stressed horse:
- Hair loss
- Dull coat
- Resistance when being exercised
- Reduced appetite
- Muscle wastage
- Losing a fellow paddock mate (vocalization)
Just like us, horses can experience stress. If we are able to recognise when our own bodies are in need of some self care then we NEED to be able to notice if our horses are showing stressed behavioural signs.
Ways to reduced stress:
- Reduce the exercise load
- Check for any injuries or pain (get a vet if necessary)
- Giving the horse a paddock mate
- Not pushing your horse into a discipline it isn't genetically built for
- Get lessons from an instructor to create a better horse-rider connection!
Happy horse, happy rider!
Potential Effects of Stress on the Performance of Sport Horses