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Domesticated horses are more docile than their wild and feral cousins, but they still have the same fight or flight response. When stressed or startled, their instinct is to run.

Yet, the environment domesticated horses live in is quite different from the one in which their ancestors evolved. Domestic equines can’t simply run away when stressed.

That means it’s our job as caregivers to minimize the stress our horses experience—especially if we want to keep them healthy and performing optimally. Understanding how stress works on the body and knowing how to limit stressors can help you prevent your horse from becoming ill or injured.

What Is Stress?

Horses respond to stress much like we do. It’s not simply a feeling—stress produces a physiologic response in the body. When a horse is stressed, their body releases cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal glands.

Cortisol is vital for essential healthy metabolic and immune system function, but too much can be harmful. That’s true for both horses and humans.

Intense training routines, noisy environments, changes in routine, and confinement can all cause a horse’s body to release cortisol. Constant exposure to cortisol, even from minor stressors, can suppress a horse’s immune system. This can make the animal more susceptible to infections and conditions like rain rot and thrush.

Signs of Stress

There are some signs to watch out for that signal your horse may need extra attention:

ACUTE SIGNS OF STRESS

  • Trembling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vocalizing
  • Heavy breathing at rest
  • Flared nostrils
  • Running
  • Tail swishing
  • Shying
  • Pacing
  • Rearing
  • Sweating
  • Worried expression
  • Muscle tension
  • Refusing food

CHRONIC SIGNS OF STRESS

  • Stall-pacing or weaving
  • Colic
  • Anorexia
  • Teeth-grinding
  • Aggression
  • Skin infections
  • Depression
  • Dull coat
  • Decreased performance
  • Immune system problems

 

Closeup of a black brown Frisian stallion horse

Some horses are good at “masking” stress. They may not show outward signs—like sweating or pacing—until they develop a serious health problem. That’s why it’s important to observe your horse and know what is normal for them. If you notice sudden changes in personality, behavior, or habits, your horse might be stressed.

Common causes of stress in horses include:

  • Changes in routine
  • Riding and training
  • Confinement/stall rest
  • Travel
  • Weather
  • Vet and farrier care

How to Minimize Stress

Reducing stressful stimuli in their environment, providing regular vet checkups, ensuring they have access to a variety of quality food sources and plenty of water, and introducing changes to their routine gradually are all ways to minimize stress in horses.

Horse solarium Sublime

Investing in quality equine products can also help keep stress under control. Choosing the right saddle and bridle, for example, will help minimize discomfort during riding. Also make sure to check—or have your vet check—your horse’s mouth, shoes, and general body condition regularly.

Equine solariums are another beneficial item for equine caretakers. Solariums use deep-penetrating infrared radiation to ease stiff, sore muscles. They’ve been known to help calm restless or nervous horses, and they provide an artificial source of sunlight for stable-kept animals, which may help minimize stress from boredom and loneliness during confinement.

equine vibration therapy system horse vibrating platform

Injuries are another common source of stress for horses. Horse vibration plates provide whole-body therapy, which can boost muscle development, improve circulation, speed healing after an injury. Whole-body vibration for your horse can also significantly reduce the risk of future injuries, as well as lowering the cortisol level of the horse within the first few minutes and helping reduce muscle and foot pain.

With the right care and attention, you can help keep your horse’s stress levels down and ensure their health and performance don’t suffer. Vitafloor USA, Inc. is a leading provider of equine exercise equipment and safety products. Learn more about us and shop our line of quality products.