Mental stress in horses

Mental stress in horses

The scrutiny of equine sport and methods used for training and riding is increasing, which is bringing us valuable research into the mental welfare of horses.

Whilst bucking and leaping can be the equine equivalent to humans screaming for help, there are several more subtle signs exhibited by an unhappy horse. These include tight skin, tense muscles, a triangulated eye, wrinkles above the eye, defecating, tail swishing, vocalising and flared nostrils. Research has shown that even when people are exposed to incredibly obvious symptoms of stress, such as weaving or crib biting, the more they see it, the less able they become to acknowledge it.  This highlights how the smaller behaviours can therefore be easily missed (or learnt to be ignored) and the symptoms of a stressed horse can just become ‘normal’. This problem of human desensitisation is compounded when subtle signs can regularly be seen in photos on social media and in magazines.

Research has also shown that when faced with a short stressful activity, horses categorised into either being compliant or non compliant actually had the same physiological indicators of stress, such as a raised heart rate. So outwardly the non compliant horses would show greater reactivity but inside they had the same stress levels as the horses that were judged to be more relaxed and happy. Many people take non reactivity of a horse to be good behaviour or trust but it can be the case that the horse has just given in and developed learned helplessness. This condition is often considered desirable by many, as it means people can gain what they want from the horse and also be safer, as the ‘louder’, more extreme behaviours (bucking, rearing, etc) are not always demonstrated. However even unintentionally, the creation of learned helplessness is best avoided, for better welfare the process of systematic desensitisation to a potential stressor is always preferable. If the horse is gradually habituated in conjunction with having the opportunity to learn that the stressful activity can be pleasurable, people can still gain a compliant, safer horse as the end result but through a process that is much less traumatic.

The ways people deal with equine stress can obviously differ but moral disengagement is common: this manifests in several ways but includes rephrasing to nicer words and distorting situations in order for us to feel better. For example, ‘I hit him with a whip’ becomes ‘I gave him a reminder’. People don’t necessarily mean to cause their horses stress, but through desensitisation and distorting and remodelling language, they learn to live with it, sometimes in ignorance but it can also be in order to conform. Decades ago research showed that people will continue to inflict excruciating pain on another person if they are told to do so by an authority figure, and new research has provided further evidence to back this up.

The increasing research into the equine mind is a great thing, it helps us look at ourselves and the methods we use and identify areas for improvement. It enables us to become more ethical and safer horse people, able to leave the cruder and less empathetic approaches behind. Ultimately it supports and facilitates a symbiotic horse-human relationship. Win-win!

Happy Riding.

Natalie x

Featured image by Millie Moore

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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.