:Stress in Horses
By Mary Ann Simonds

Stress can be good or bad depending upon the amount. A stressor is anything that the body perceives as stress and causes the body to react or change. In small amount this is Nature's way of helping a body adapt and change to its environment. When too much stress is perceived in too short a time, the body breaks down. Just like with people, stress can be perceived in a variety of forms from physical to mental and emotional. Often we only look at the physical stress on our equine athletes and not the emotional or mental stress. Mental and emotional stress in certain horses can be a far greater stressor than physical stress.

Non-drug water-based formulas known as "vibrational essences", "energy remedies", "flower essences", and/or "structured waters" are currently being tested and used around the world with humans to control mental and emotional stress disorders. Few, if any formal studies have been conducted with animals to date. Similar to homeopathic remedies, but following different principles, these subtle energy formulas are easily administered through the water or even topically to horses. Working primarily with the electrical system of the body these formulas can influence the mental and emotional processes of the horse to assist in reducing how the horse perceives and processes stress.

Various blends of these non-drug subtle energy formulas have been researched since 1985 by the author in animals, primarily horses. Both controlled and clinical study data is presented in an effort to educate and stimulate the reader to investigate further the use of these safe stress-reducing remedies on performance horses.

Treating Stress in Wild Horses Using Non-Drug Essences

From 1985-1989, various studies were conducted with wild horses at Palomino Valley, Nevada and several Bureau of Land Management adoptions throughout California. Wild horses are gathered using helicopters, loaded into vans, shipped to a processing facility and then sorted according to sex and age. Natural herd relationships are destroyed and risk of injury is quite high. Normal rate of injury at Palomino Valley at the time of this study was between 8-10%. Study groups were divided into three categories within each group of mares, stallions and foals. Study group 1 was the control, study group 2 was given Rescue Remedy© and study group 3 was given a blend of essences designed to relax, increase understanding, reduce fear and increase cooperation at Palomino Valley.

Vibrational remedies known as "flower essences" which are similar to homeopathic remedies were made or purchased by the author. Although scientific understanding of these remedies is based on quantum physics, there is little knowledge and research available on the use of these non-drug remedies in animals. Most research has been conducted on people and historically there is almost 80 years of data available. These remedies are considered food substances by US standards, but are regulated in such countries as Australia for human use. Rescue Remedy is a trade name for a five-flower blend made by the Bach company in England. The blend developed by the author is now trade named by Toklat Originals as part of their Natural Vibrations line of stress remedies for horses and riders.

Methodology

At the wild horse handling facility, a 2 oz. bottle filled with plain tap water was used for the control group. The second group had a 2 oz. bottle of tap water with one dropperful (approximately 22 drops) of Bach Rescue Remedy in it. The third group had a 2 oz. bottle of tap water with a dropperful of the author's blend of flower, mineral and other vibrational essences for cooperation and relaxation. The bottles were first shaken and then four dropperfuls were placed in the water troughs of each group tested two times a day for a period of four days. Horses would then drink the water and receive the essences. One study group was administered the essences using a squirt gun while in the chutes waiting to be processed. A person alongside the chutes or up above squirted the horses in the mouth as they came through the chutes before entering into the gate for vaccination, branding and teeth checking.

During adoptions essences were placed into the water as was done at the handling facility, but for only two days instead of four. Horses were already sorted according to gender and age, but no distinction was made between mares, geldings, stallions, or young horses.

Results and Discussion:

In all cases overall injury rate of the horses given essences was reduced during the time of the study. Group # 2 had less than 3% injury and group number 3 less than 1% injury. The control groups at Palomino Valley also had less than normal injury with only 6% being hurt during processing. This may be due to the fact that more attention and care was given to these horses than normal because of the increase in awareness of handling during the study. One study group had a horse-caused fatality.

Observable behaviors were noted, but not measured for this study because of the subjectivity of observation. However, signs of stress such as increased respiration, sweating, screaming, and attempted escapes were reduced in the groups given essences. Horses followed after the study also showed reduced signs of stress and more of a trusting attitude with people. Differences in behaviors were noted between the horses given essences and the control group at adoptions during the loading of horses into unfamiliar trailers. The control horses that were not given any essences showed standard signs of stress and reluctance in loading by pulling back, refusing to go forward, rearing, turning around in the chutes, biting, sweating, increased respiration and heart rate, rolling eyes, snorting and trying to climb out of the chutes. Horses, regardless of age and sex given the essences prior to loading tended to behave with caution, but showed little physical signs of stress and had no injuries.

Rescue Remedy Group vs. Cooperation Blend Group

Although the group given Rescue Remedy appeared to have reduced signs of stress, they did not seem to exhibit any signs of cooperation. Three horses in the Rescue Remedy group tried over and over again to jump out of the chutes over handlers with no sign of fear or panic, just focused and intent on the task of escaping. Rescue Remedy appeared to help the horses feel calm, but more focused on the task of returning to their herd.

Although many variables existed in this study, the results indicated a benefit from administering the non-drug remedies by reducing injury of wild horses during processing and handling. Proper handling techniques could also reduce injury to the same levels. However, handling is related to the ability and awareness of the person, not to any outside agent such as these substances. Of more interest and an area needing further research is the measurement of reduced physical and behavioral stress resulting from the use of these stress-reducing formulas.

Multi-Discipline Stress Study

A study was conducted over two years during 1989 and 1990 on horses in various disciplines to evaluate stress levels. The focus of the study was to determine if mental and emotional stress were perceived by horses relative to various disciplines of training and whether the stress was related to any physical disorders. Horses were selected randomly within stables dedicated to a specific training discipline including hunter/jumpers, racing, dressage, polo, combined training, and western pleasure. Five to ten horses were chosen at each barn facility depending upon the total number of horses at the barn and the availability to follow each horse's training. The study period varied from several weeks to several months.

The horses were evaluated on their ability to obtain positive and desired training results and stay physically and mentally fit over a varied time period. Some barns were not re-visited as frequently as others, so the time frame varied. Muscle tension, lameness, ulcers, teeth grinding, cribbing, bucking, pinning ears back when being saddled, and general cooperation levels of the horse were evaluated. Temperament was also evaluated according to the subjective Five Step Evaluation of the author using sensitivity, awareness, intelligence, confidence, and cooperation levels.

In general, confident, outgoing horses with well-developed egos, cooperative natures and in training with understanding trainers did well at all disciplines. Stress was most noticeable in horses that had physical pain or mental and emotional stress. In several barns, all horses in the study sample showed signs of stress. This may have been due also to diet and lack of proper exercise, which were not evaluated in this study. Poor training techniques could also be the reason for all horses showing stress indicators in one barn.

Among the disciplines evaluated, polo ponies showed the least amount of stress indicators. This may be due to the fact that all polo ponies evaluated were stabled in a herd situation, were exercised in groups of horse friends, and played a sport that allows the horse to socialize in a herd situation. Although, the sport is very physically demanding, polo ponies appear to live under conditions that are the closest to how a wild or natural horse would live. This is probably why they appeared to have little or no mental or emotional stress when not in competition.

Ulcers were most often found in upper level dressage horses. Ulcers were confirmed by the fact the horses were regularly receiving ulcer medication. Although these horses appeared to be physically healthy, they seemed to internalize their mental or emotional stress more than the other horses evaluated. All competing dressage horses evaluated were stabled in stalls with no turn out, but were longed regularly using equipment such as side reins. Their diets appeared to be more than adequate. Upper level dressage may be requiring horses to "think" beyond their capabilities for deductive reasoning, thus causing more mental stress than other disciplines.

Cribbing and weaving behaviors were most noticeable in hunter/jumpers and racehorses confined to stalls. In general, horses confined to stalls with little or no turn out time with other horses seemed to display the largest number of stress indicators. This is not surprising, as boredom is common in stabled horses. Muscle tension was almost equal among all disciplines of horses, although specific muscle groups varied. Physical injuries were highest among racehorses. This sample may have been skewed, because almost all the horses were young 2-6 year-old horses with a high level of physical requirements. Other disciplines had more varied ages of horses.

Conclusions

Although, this study was not controlled and training methods, habitat, diet, weather, and living conditions all were variables, there are some general conclusions that can be made. Horses living in a natural state such as a herd and allowed to train and compete as a herd exhibited less emotional and mental stress than those horses isolated from their friends and required to exercise and compete alone. Highly sensitive horses disturbed by overstimulation of sensory input and lacking confidence had the largest number of all stress indicators.

Even though polo ponies showed the least signs of stress, it is most possible that this is because of how the horses are kept and competed. This study is not conclusive in determining the effects of various disciplines and training on stress in horses. Rather, the study indicated that horses perceive stress in similar ways to humans and other animals. How a horse responds to stress is related more to the horse's perception of stress. Although much of horse behavior is learned, those horses that were allowed to have social relationships in a natural herd type setting appeared to be the least stressed given that diet and training were the same. Training discipline seemed less of a factor than living conditions and social relationships.

Whatever discipline you choose to compete in with your horses, it is helpful to evaluate the horse's temperament and its ability to handle stress. Most horses will be less stressed if they have the ability to form friendships with other horses and share some activity with them. Even horses turned out alone in paddocks exhibited signs of stress due to loneliness and boredom. By limiting our horses' stressors we may prevent behavioral and physical problems from occurring and ultimately limit our stress as well.



PREVENTING STRESS IN HORSES - We can't always prevent it, but we can understand what causes it in horses and help them better cope with stress.

1. Understand your horse, and how your horse perceives its world.
a. Instinctual/biological needs
b. Personality and psychological make-up
2. Limit stressors for your horse.
a. Provide a well-balanced diet, as natural as possible, with free grazing, herbs, and nutritional mineral/vitamin supplementation if needed.
b. Maintain a good health program - regular health checks before something happens - ideally four times a year at the beginning and end of each season.
c. Provide a pleasant, natural environment with as much space as possible.
d. Provide regular, varied exercise - mix ring work with hills and trails.
e. Allow playtime for your horse and for you.
f. Prevent boredom - provide toys of various sizes, shapes, textures, smells.
g. Prepare your horse for travel or other changes - increase B complex vitamins, use relaxing herbs and flower essences.
h. Allow your horse to meet other horses and animals, to smell manure and engage in as many "horse" activities that you can safely allow.
i. Allow your horse to roll every day.
j. "Know" your horse's stablemates and its relationship to them - stable next to friends.
k. Keep yourself happy and healthy - limit your stress - your thoughts and feelings are picked up by your horse and can be reflected in your horse's behavior and physical well-being.
3. Teach yourself and your horse how to properly cope with stress.
a. Conduct some form of bodywork on your horse and have some done on you on a regular basis. This trains you to relax and listen to touch; i.e. acupressure, TTEAM, physical therapy, etc.
b. Before you get on, stretch yourself and your horse - yoga, T'ai chi, etc.
c. Teach your horse confidence with safe-space training.
d. While warming up at the walk:
1. Center yourself with your horse - focus your thoughts with your horse.
2. Take several deep breaths and try to synchronize your breathing with your horse's breathing.
3. Feel your horse's muscles as energy and visualize the flow of energy.
4. Use your thoughts and breath to move energy while you ride.
5. Relax and enjoy your horse.

About the author:
Mary Ann Simonds is an equine behaviorist and natural health consultant. She writes, gives clinics and lectures on stress management for riders and horses. She can be contacted at Wisdom Stone Farm, 17101 NE 40th Ave., Vancouver, WA 98686, (360) 573-1958, E-mail Horsespirt@aol.com.


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