Stress and Spooking in Horses - Causes and Ways to Manage It

Stress and Spooking in Horses - Causes and Ways to Manage It

Why is my horse stressed/spooky and what can I do about it?


Modern day horse management doesn’t lend itself to the most relaxed disposition in horses. Add to that the fact that they’re prey animals and it’s easy to understand why they’re flighty and at times reactive.


Causes of Stress for Horses


There are a number of things that can cause anxiety for horses. In some cases there are ongoing factors and in other cases, they are short term. For examples, moving to a new yard or going to a show. Sources of stress can also include things like travelling, leaving their friends/ herd and hacking out on the roads. In some cases loud noises, particular items or ‘scary’ objects can cause explosive reactions. Some horses are fine with these things and others can be extremely reactive, it really depends on the nature and history of the horse.


What does stress/ anxiety look like in horses? 


Stress, anxiety and fear can manifest themselves in many ways in horses. Some of them hold their stress mainly internally and stop dead in their tracks, tensing up and possibly shaking. Others will be be very reactive and ‘spook’, even adding in bucks and rears in some cases.


Common signs of stress are:


  • Shaking or trembling 
  • Spooking 
  • Weaving and box walking 
  • Backing into a corner 
  • Bolting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Excessive sweating


The Dangers of Stress/ Anxiety in Horses


Aside from being scary for you as the rider, these reactions can be dangerous for horse and rider. In addition, stress can have a really negative effect on your horse’s quality of life and overall health and well-being. If horses experience stress regularly or on an ongoing basis it can lead to colic - one of the biggest worries for horses owners. Stress colic can be fatal so it’s essential to avoid it. 

Ongoing stress can also lead to weight loss and make it difficult to to get that weight back on. Stress can cause dullness in the coat and compromise hoof health including causing laminitis. If their stress presents in stereotypy behaviours such as weaving or box walking, this can lead to tendon, ligament and muscle soreness or damage. Plus, we all know ourselves, that feeling stressed and anxious is rubbish way to feel. Because of the impacts of ongoing stress and anxiety, it is a very important issue to address quickly, get it under control and managed effectively. 


Ways to manage stress and anxiety in horses


If your horse is prone to spooking and reactivity, it’s important to ensure that they get enough exercise. Excess energy will make them more reactive and make those reactions bigger. This should help keep horses calmer, particularly if they’re stabled. 


If a particular event is likely to take place such as fireworks or certain activities on the yard, check on them regularly to be sure you can catch any emergencies early. It might also be useful to keep them securely stabled if you can to lessen the chances of spooking and associated injury. 


Make sure that your horse isn’t being fed excess calories. Many horse owners have a tendency to overfeed and this can often be a source of reactive behaviour, and make it harder to bring stress under control. Other key things to be mindful of with feed when looking to manage reactive behaviours are:


  • Ensuring the feed is free from molasses
  • Ensuring the sugar and starch levels are under 5%, if possible
  • Horses can be very sensitive to soya and soy byproducts, which can cause spookiness and reactivity, so try to keep those to a minimum or provide a soy free feed


Using an effective calming supplement is also central to a stress management approach for horses. Using a natural calmer such as No More Nerves will support your horse’s nervous system and settle the stress response, without sedating them. You still want your horse to be themselves and have their personality, after all. This kind of a calming approach will ensure your horse is responsive but not (over)reactive - their perfect combination. Given the pressures we put horses under these days in the way that we manage them and with what we expect of them, providing them with a calmer to take the edge off their stress really can enhance their quality of life (and your ability to enjoy your horse!). 


Be sure when selecting a calmer that it doesn’t contain magnesium. Magnesium makes for an effective calmer when a horse is actually magnesium deficient, but that is very rare in the UK. Excess magnesium can lead to excitability, adding further to the problem! 


Read more on No More Nerves here.

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