Most people who own horses are inadvertently looking for ways to make horse ownership convenient. The typical living situation for a show horse is far removed from the conditions in which wild horses have evolved to thrive.
We keep our horses in stalls because that makes horse care easier; we feed them processed grain because it’s difficult to provide enough quality forage to meet their nutritional needs; and we only offer them a few hours outside since most boarding barns have limited turnout. While this lifestyle might be convenient for people, it’s easy to forget the negative effects it may have on our horses.
When it comes to traveling and showing, we further take our horses out of their comfort zones by introducing strange horses, unfamiliar surroundings and long trailer rides that only add stress to their lives. While stress is a natural state of the body, too much stress is damaging to a horse’s health.
Over the next eight weeks, this series will discuss how the health of horses is negatively affected while they’re on the road, and what you, as a concerned owner, can do about it.
The key to horse care on the road is reducing your horse’s stress.
“Stress is good on the plains of Africa if you’re running from a lion, but I can’t think of any other reason stress would be good for a horse,” said Scott Swerdlin, DVM, MRCVS, of Palm Beach Equine Medical Centers in Wellington, Fla. “You want to do everything you can to decrease stress.”
What Is Stress?
Stress is a natural response of the body to something that threatens it, physically or mentally, accident or disease. Since horses are prey animals, stress triggers their natural “fight or flight” response. In many situations, however, a horse doesn’t have the ability for “flight” when stressed, and stress continues to build.
When a horse is anxious or scared, his heart rate and blood pressure go up, and circulation to the gut, skin and other body parts decreases, allowing the blood to flow primarily to the muscles and lungs. This change prepares the horse’s body to get away quickly. A stressed horse also has increased retention of sodium and water and a reduction in tissue inflammation.
Chemically, stress produces an increase in the adrenal glands’ production of cortisol. Cortisol is regularly present in the body and helps regulate metabolism, blood pressure, immune function and inflammatory response. However, too much cortisol can significantly impact your horse.
“Corticosteroids have good effects and bad effects,” said Swerdlin. “The bad effects can sometimes overcome the good effects. In some cases, like in older horses, they can develop problems from profuse diarrhea to laminitis.”
The Cortisol Conundrum
The Good (Temporary Stress)
- Creates temporary increase in blood glucose (energy).
- Creates temporary increase in fatty acids and glycerol.
- Breaks down reserves of fat, carbohydrates and protein to release nutrients into the bloodstream.
- Transitions body into emergency survival mode.
- Provides temporary help during trauma and infection by blocking production of harmful substances and toxins.
The Bad (Prolonged Stress)
- Immune system becomes compromised.
- Cortisol inhibits production of white blood cells and antibodies.
- Hindgut becomes compromised.
- Unfavorable bacteria overcome good bacteria.
- Respiratory system becomes vulnerable.
- Harmful organisms occur in the environment naturally, so when the immune system is not fully functioning, it’s easier for your horse to contract an illness, especially when shipping where they may not get fresh air or be able to stretch their head and neck down to clear their airway.
The Ugly (Potential problems associated with long-term stress)
- Weight Loss
- Shipping Fever
- Common Cold
- Vice development—pawing, kicking, biting, etc.
One of the simplest ways to reduce stress for your horse is to prepare him properly for the tasks you will ask him to do. If you plan on traveling with your horse on a regular basis, allow him time to become used to the trailer and the idea of travel.
“It amazes me the number of people who transport horses who have never transported a horse before, or the horse has never been transported before,” said Swerdlin. “The horses are flight or fight, so if they haven’t practiced or had experience, they can get a little silly.”
But stress doesn’t necessarily always come from traveling. Stress occurs any time a horse is out of its natural comfort zone. For most horses, that means they are stressed most of their lives. In this series, we will discuss ways to decrease stress in many aspects of the domestic horse’s life on the road and at shows, including:
- Traveling – Trailering or flying? Commerical shippers or do-it-yourself? How can you make the experience as comfortable as possible for your horse?
- Feeding/Water – Non-domesticated horses spend 70 percent of their time grazing. How can you supplement your horse’s diet to keep enough forage in their system while on the road? How do you keep your horse hydrated and encourage him to drink in strange locations?
- Exercise – How often should your horse have turnout on the road? What can you do if turnout isn’t available? How many times a day should your horse get out of the stall while at the show?
- Herd Instinct – Horses are generally more comfortable with a friend. How can you help them adjust to new “herds” (unfamiliar stable or trailer mates)? What about separation anxiety?
- Boredom/Stall Life – On busy horse show days, what can you do to make sure your horse isn’t climbing the walls of his stall? How can you help him get used to different bedding and make sure the stalls are horse safe?
- Confidence – When exposing a horse to new situations and surroundings, how can you keep him confident without overwhelming him?
- Health Issues – How do you handle health issues that may develop from stress? What signs should you look out for and how do you help your horse recover? How do you keep your horse healthy from his hair and skin to his internal systems?
- Your Stress – Did you know stress is contagious? What steps can you take to keep your stress from affecting your horse?