Telltale Signs of Stress in Horses

Portrait of Icelandic horse by lake

atliegilsson/Getty Images

A number of things can make horses stressed, like being alone, loading and riding in a trailer, veterinary care, farrier work, preparing for and going to shows, changes in weather, changes in the people caring for them, changes in routine such as a new stall or differing feeding schedule, stall rest due to injury or illness, and a stressed handler or rider. Horses express psychological stress in a number of ways.

  • 01 of 15

    Weight Loss

    Skinny White Pony

    Horses that are chronically psychologically stressed can start to lose weight. As there can be many reasons for this, such as heat stress, parasites, poor feed, and health problems, it's necessary to look at all aspects of the horse's care to determine the cause of the weight loss.

  • 02 of 15

    Stall Walking and Other Vices

    a horse pacing a fence

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Stall walking is when a horse walks around a stall or walks back and forth along one wall repetitively. Weaving, cribbing, wood chewing, wall kicking, and fence walking are all signs of stress.

  • 03 of 15

    Yawning

    a horse yawning

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Most of us yawn when we are tired. It's the way our bodies inhale a little extra oxygen to fuel our sleepy brain. Horses, however, don't yawn for the same reason, nor is it an appeasement gesture, as in dogs. A University of Guelph study found that yawning may be a way for a horse to release endorphins. Yawning (and most horses will do it several times in a row) can be a sign that the horse might be feeling stressed, and by yawning, it is releasing this stress.

  • 04 of 15

    Tooth Grinding

    a horse in a stall

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Some horses grind their teeth while stabled, some while ridden. Tooth grinding can be a sign of physical or physiological stress. If the horse has no other dental issues, it's important to check for things like equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) and other sources of chronic pain or stressful situations.

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  • 05 of 15

    Bad Behavior

    Horse Wringing Its Tail

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Many examples of poor behavior while being ridden, can be caused by physiological or physical stress. Stress can be expressed through pawing, pulling, tail wringing, bucking, rearing, bolting, or being cold backed (sensitive in the back).

  • 06 of 15

    EGUS

    cross country jumping
    Getty Images

    Many performance horses suffer from equine gastric ulcer syndrome. This can be in response to a stressful show schedule or other stressors.

  • 07 of 15

    Manure and Urination

    horse manure

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    A horse that is stressed can produce copious amounts of manure within a short time. Some may produce very runny manure. Horses will often urinate if stressed, and if they can't relieve themselves because they can't relax, such as in a trailer or when being ridden, they can become antsier.

  • 08 of 15

    Licking and Chewing

    dog and horse looking at each other

    Maria itina/Getty Images

    Natural horsemanship concepts suggest that licking and chewing is a sign that a horse is accepting new information, such as during training. As long as this behavior is not abnormally repetitive or compulsive, this action may be more like yawning in its function, as a way to release any stress the horse may be feeling.

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  • 09 of 15

    Colic

    Horse eating hay.

    Mac99/Getty Images

    Colic symptoms may be caused by stress. A new herd mate or changes in routine, weather, or handler can be enough to make some horses mildly colicky. Chronic stress can lead to EGUS, which can cause colic symptoms.

  • 10 of 15

    Trembling

    Horse standing in snow by gate.

    Christina Handley/Getty Images

    Any number of stressful situations can cause a horse to tremble. Just the appearance of the veterinarian, farrier, or the arrival of a trailer ​in the yard can cause some horses to start shaking. Usually, as soon as the cause of the stress disappears, the trembling stops.

  • 11 of 15

    High Pulse and Respiration

    Man taking horse's pulse while holding watch.

    Alina Solovyova-Vincent/Getty Images

    When a horse becomes stressed, their pulse and respiration rates can increase, sometimes drastically. Thus, it's important to know your horse’s baseline values for temperature, pulse and respiration (TPRs).

  • 12 of 15

    Sweating

    A sweating horse.

    Charles Mann/Getty Images

    As a horse's pulse and respiration may increase when stressed, it may also start to sweat (and tremble). Work stress tends to show up between the horse's legs, and under the saddle area and can eventually cover the horse's whole body. It depends on how hard and long the horse works. A stressed horse may sweat in patches, however. Patches of sweat can also indicate the location of old injuries.

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  • 13 of 15

    Bolting Food

    Three horses eating hay.

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    A worried horse often bolts its food. Bolting can lead to choking, or other digestive disturbances. This can happen in a stall or trailer.

  • 14 of 15

    Chewing or Biting

    Horse's nose.

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Some horses express stress by biting things, people, or other horses.

  • 15 of 15

    How to Alleviate Stress

    Horse chewing stall wall

    Katherine Blocksdorf

    Much stress can be relieved by providing consistent schedules in natural environments, as much as possible. This means frequent turnout, with ample access to food, water, and companionship. 'Show stress' is more difficult to remedy, but turnout and exercise between shows can be helpful.

    Give horses time to acclimatize to new situations, such as new herd mates or stall locations. Do your best to give horses in trailers a smooth ride. It's almost impossible to prevent all stress, but good basic care should take care of most.

Article Sources
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  1. Lesimple, Clémence. Indicators Of Horse Welfare: State-Of-The-ArtAnimals, vol 10, no. 2, 2020, p. 294. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/ani10020294

  2. Gastric Ulcers In Horses: Facts And FallaciesKentucky Equine Research, 2020

  3. Vital Signs: Know What’S Normal For Your HorseKentucky Equine Research, 2020