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Talking Horses

Under Pressure

Virtually everything we ask our horses to do causes them stress.

by Scott Thomson



For years stress has been known as the "silent killer" for humans. The number of medical conditions that have stress as a possible component is enormous. Any visit to your doctor usually includes questions about how you're managing the stress in your everyday life, and suggestions on how to deal with it if it seems to be getting the better of you.

If you're over the age of 50, you can probably remember there was actually a time when there was no drug advertising in the media. Today, there seem to be more ads for drugs than for soda, and a surprising amount of these focus on helping you manage the effects of stress. The growing interest in activities and therapies like yoga, meditation and counseling is another indication of the stress overload and what it does to us.

We all know what happens when the levels of stress become too great. Some people internalize things. They seem calm on the outside but inside things aren't going too well. Other people "pop the cork" to let off steam. We know of the sad and often tragic stories of PTSD in our military and first responders. We find ways to deal with the issues — some good, some quite destructive. Even with all our efforts to manage or control this powerful force, it would appear from what we see in the media, in our community and even our families, we're not doing a great job handling our stress.

Back in the 1970s there was a popular book, The Relaxation Response. Its core premise was that our physiological processes have not really evolved, and that we still possess a strong fight/flight response left over from our days in caves. What's different now is that in our modern lives we don't have the immediate outlets to deal with what goes on in our bodies at chemical levels during the tension of fight or flight. We can't run away from our jobs, families or responsibilities when the pressure gets too great. Nor can can we usually resort to a physical fight. We have to battle these internal forces, the stresses, to get through the day, doing ourselves emotional or physical harm if the pressures become too much or we don't find acceptable ways to reduce the stress.


When I started with horses I never really thought about whether stress existed in their world. Like most people, I saw any unwanted behavior or illness as a result of bad breeding, poor training or moldy hay. Intellectually, I knew horses pretty much work the same way we do — they have hearts, lungs, blood, the same basic chemicals and hormones — so perhaps demanding that prey animals that rely on flight resist all their natural instincts, to please us, causes them the same inner turmoil.

I asked more questions about this after the first couple of years with my horse Cody. He had behavioral issues that ranged from annoying to dangerous. He was a horrible wind-sucker and had "fall down on the ground I'm going to die" colics about every six weeks. My monthly vet bills resembled a jumbo mortgage payment. He was a terror in his stall — lots of ear pinning and aggressive attempts (with frequent success) to bite. He was just an all-around crab even on his best days. The "experienced" horse people had lots of opinions on all this — the wind-sucking was due to boredom and he probably learned it from another horse, or it released endorphins that made him feel good. The other issues were from bad training or bad breeding and he needed to be disciplined and punished whenever the behavior showed up.

I'm a curious guy, so I started to do some research to see if there was any science to back up these opinions. What I found certainly didn't support the opinions, and it started me thinking about stress on horses and what it can do to them.

A study out of Switzerland indicated a strong link between wind-sucking (and cribbing) and ulcers. In people, lifestyle, diet and stress are often associated with ulcers, and it would appear the same is true for horses. I knew enough about Cody's early life and training (started at two, kept in a stall, high grain diet, constant training for shows) that I thought I should follow up on this lead. A thorough exam at a top vet school indicated Cody was indeed riddled with ulcers.

I don't have the space to describe everything I did over the years, but with a program of stress reduction with changes in diet, exercise and feeding patterns, companionship, and handling/training techniques, he has not had a colic in over eight years. Plus his wind-sucking is probably 10% of what it was, he rarely attempts a nip, and his general attitude is acceptable. I've even had people call him a "sweetie."


A vet once told me that the farther you take a horse away from his natural way of life, the more behavioral and physical issues you will see. Like us, the way their bodies work is little changed over millions of years. Their strongest instincts and needs — flight, the consistency and clarity of living in a herd, their basic language — are stifled by the way they have to live with us, and this internal conflict is what leads to stress.

The more I've observed horse behavior and horse/human interaction, the more I'm convinced that virtually everything we ask our horses to do causes them some level of stress. Our most basic needs from our horses — riding, living in a small space, standing still when tied, being relaxed in claustrophobic situations — all go against the basic nature of the horse.

I read a great study out of England about a year ago that threw some light on this subject. The idea was to take a simple task — in this case clipping a horse — and look at levels of stress in two groups of horses. One group consisted of horses that appeared completely calm with the procedure; the other had horses that were obviously nervous, scared or resistant. Stress would be measured not by outward behavior but by heart rate, stress hormone levels, respiration, etc.

As humans, we would guess the horses that were obviously nervous, acting up, pulling away, etc. were more stressed about the activity than the horses that just stood there. The results actually showed that both groups had the same high levels of stress. In other words, the outward behavior was not a true reflection of the level of stress. So, a horse can internalize and mask things just as we do, but what may appear to be a simple and non-threatening task can be an unnatural, stressful event to a horse.

I'm certainly not saying we should just leave our horses alone so we don't stress them out — although if they voted that's probably the result we'd see. What I'm suggesting is that we understand that our needs are not theirs, and that life in our world is in direct conflict for what is natural for them. This is the formula for stress for a horse, just as it is for us, and I'm convinced that the short-term effects of stress will show up in their behavior, and longer term in their health. This may be where natural horsemanship can be of great value. It makes the time spent with you closer to what your horse would get in a herd, and the herd is where the horse feels the least stress.

Monty Roberts once said we should look at horse behavior as feedback for the way they see and feel about their world. Bad or resistant behavior is not a bad habit to be broken, but a response to a very real concern. Likewise, don't assume a calm and easy-going horse is content and stress-free. Give him as much of the life he would choose on his own as you possibly can. Look for the possible causes of behavior or physical problems; don't focus on the symptoms. We may have domesticated them (or at least we think we have), but that hasn't changed their basic nature. We have a hard time handling the stress and pressure of our lives, even with all the drugs, therapies and crutches we have available. Why should it be any different or easier for our horses?




Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.



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