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  • Writer's pictureDale Rudin

Chronic Stress - How Does It Affect Horses?

It may be hard to believe horses get stressed out. What do they have to be upset about?

They get fed, hang out with their buddies, get groomed, and go to work 3-5 days a week for an hour or two a day... on average.

Unfortunately, the picture may not be all that rosy.

A Horse's Life

A great many horses spend their days and nights confined in stalls. They have little or zero access to others of their kind. Social interactions are essential for wellbeing, as is the ability to move their bodies as nature intended.

During the time they are brought out of their stall, they may be handled and worked in ways beyond their ability that strain and damage their bodies.

They may handled roughly, physical abused, or emotionally mistreated. They may not have enough or the right type of food available.

Some Horses Got It Good

Of course, that's not always the case. Some horses have buddies, room to frolic, and excellent lovingcare provided by their human caretakers.

These horses are more likely to live with low levels of stress, the normal everyday variety - something unexpected or unpleasant happens but it's a relatively brief experience and soon things improve and return to normal.

The Stress Response

Stress is a normal part of life - an important and infinitely valuable aspect of the survival mechanism.

When we're stressed our bodies are in a ready state to put up a fight or take flight, protecting us from danger and harm.

If the brain perceives that something is amiss, it will activate the systems of the body, cardiovascular, endocrine, respiratory, neurological, and musculoskeletal do the body is prepared to avoid the threat and keep itself alive.

When It Doesn't Get Better

Stress that lingers for days, weeks, or years changes a horse's psychology and physiology. A horse that's emotionally and/or physically traumatized on a regular basis, lacks having fundamental needs met, is in constant pain, or is otherwise conditioned to live survival mode, can develop behavior problems, systemic inflammation in the body, poorer health, and will experience a diminished quality of life.

What's the Answer?

For we humans, the first step is to recognize the signs of stress in horses. The faster we notice them, the quicker we can makes changes to reduce them.

We also need to have reasonable expectations of our horses. Horses can be conditioned to allow us to push them beyond their limits. Often their protests are brushed off as "bad behavior," and the horse is compelled to work through discomfort or anxiety.

The Bottom Line

Both good and damaging experiences build upon themselves. To much physical and/or emotional unpleasantness will cause long-term suffering.

Great experiences create a happier healthier individual who is resilient and more likely to enjoy his or her relationship with humans.

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