I recently entered my 6 year old AQHA gelding in his first rodeo barrel race. As we were warming up and preparing for the grand entry before the rodeo started, I noticed that my relatively quiet gelding was amped up and shaking. He wouldn’t stand still, and he was visibly nervous. He even urinated while we were waiting for the Grand Entry. At normal barrel races without the cattle and ropers, he is calm cool and collected. I then started thinking about stress management in horses and when is too much stress.
Whether you are simply transporting your horse for a simple trail ride, or you are taking them to a three-day competition event, the amount of stress that our equine partner(s) can handle depends on several factors. Horses are still considered a prey animal and they rely on their fight or flight instincts to stay hyperalert to their surroundings. Equine welfare is a major concern when we are asking our horses to compete and perform to our standards.
Some stressful situations to be mindful of include but are not limited to:
- Confinement and or restriction of movement
- Social conflicts, like being pastured with aggressive horses
- Work overload beyond the physical capabilities of the horse
- Chronic pain and/or illness
- Previous trauma or bad experiences with hauling and traveling
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and increases as the stress level increases. Researchers have measured the cortisol levels in horses’ saliva prior to, during and after stressful events and found that stress increased during events like competition. The highest levels were found in young horses being started under saddle and horses being transported. When starting a young horse, you have to consider their stress level and gradually introduce new things to build a trusting relationship. Because my young horse Dino had never been in a rodeo environment, he was visibly stressed and I closely monitored his behavior and overall appearance once returning to the trailer.
Most cortisol levels return to normal within two hours after a stressful event. Older horses are often less stressed because of the experience and knowledge of traveling and showing. The horse’s social rank has also been found to have an effect on how they handle stress. The higher the rank the lower the stress. Horses that are lower in the herd tend to be more stressed when presented with new things or asked to perform in an unfamiliar setting.
External signs of stress should be assessed. Extended periods of stress can lead to long-term negative health conditions. Some common signs of stress are:
- Weight Loss
- Behavioral Issues (Cribbing, weaving, fence walking, etc.)
- Tooth Grinding
- Diarrhea and Frequent Urination
To maintain the balance of wellbeing and performance, there are several positive ways to manage stress. For Dino in his stressful rodeo experience, I returned him to the trailer where he had a fresh bag of alfalfa hay and clean water. I also parked next to a friend who has a horse that is familiar and friends with Dino. He quickly returned to normal and calmed down as the evening continued.
Ways to reduce stress at home or at an event:
PRACTICE AT HOME: Practice stalling overnight, hauling to local low-stress events, and removing pasture mates to reduce separation anxiety. Consider adding flavored Gatorade to your horse’s water at home occasionally to get him used to drinking it if you have to use another water source away from home.
REGULAR TURNOUT: Allowing horses to freely graze and walk is so important. Increase turnout time and allow them to be a horse.
MAINTAIN A ROUTINE: Horses are creatures of habit and enjoy a routine. Having a regular feeding and exercise schedule will reduce stress.
MONITOR SOCIAL BEHAVIOR: Be aware of bully horses in the herd and pair horses that are compatible and agreeable.
ADJUST EXERCISE: If you find your horse is stressing due to increased pressure form training, consider giving them a break or decrease training. TRAVEL SAFELY: Make the trailer ride as smooth as possible. Provide hay during the trailering and offer water often if going long distances. This helps keep the horse’s stomach settled while traveling.
GASTRO-SUPPORT: If you have a particularly nervous horse, consult with your veterinarian about ulcer prevention. Always providing fresh clean forage for your horse is essential while showing and traveling.
ENSURE PROPER TACK FIT: Comfortable tack for your horse is essential for optimum performance. If tack is poor fitting, his stress levels will rise.
CALM MOMENTS: At shows there are many people and horses hustling up and down the stalls getting ready for their class. Try to find a calm quiet place that you can take your horse to hand graze or just walk and relax. Giving cookies and brushing to ease their mind is great for bonding and relaxation (for you too).
In summary, recognizing the individual personalities of your horses and adjusting your timeline and expectations based on that observation will greatly reduce the overall stress of performing and riding your horse experiences. In the next issue, we will discuss how to manage your stress and the science behind horse therapy!
Ashley Best, Newton County Extension Coordinator