by Dr Tamsin Young, Wrexham Glyndwr University.
As the seasons change our attention begins to focus on the onset of winter. For many of us that means restricted turn out for our horses, and for some stabling 24/7. Longer durations spent stabled limits horses’ opportunities to express instinctive behaviours. These include social interaction with other horses, restricted locomotion and foraging. Shorter daylight hours may also mean riding is reduced to weekends only. These changes in management practices can lead to an increase in our stress levels, but also interestingly in our horses’ too.
Stress is something that can’t always be avoided. Indeed low levels of stress can be beneficial; such as getting your horse fit for a competition. But when horses are repeatedly exposed to stressful situations or endure them continually, stress can take its toll.
Behavioural indicators of stress in horses can range from subtle signals such as increased levels of ear scanning and tail swishing, to the more obvious abnormal behaviours like weaving or box walking collectively known as stereotypic behaviour. Horses, therefore, adapt their behaviour to cope with stress experienced in much the same way as we do.
Accompanying behavioural changes in response to stress are physiological changes that we can’t always see. When horses hear a loud noise or react to a sudden movement, their body prepares them for ‘flight or fight’. Adrenaline is released and causes an elevation in heart and breathing rate. Recovery from these episodes tends to be rapid, but when stressful situations persist other body changes take over.
These changes mobilise energy in the body to sustain the stress response. Horses experiencing on going stress have typically higher levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol than horses who are better adapted to their situation. Ultimately, if high levels of cortisol are sustained horses can experience illness due to the immune system being supressed, and weight loss.
So keeping an eye on your horse’s stress levels this winter is important, especially if they have to be stabled for long periods of time. Some horses cope better than others and factors like their breeding, age, sex, previous experience, and temperament are influential. To try and keep stable related stress to a minimum we can provide a regular daily routine, social companionship with other horses, plenty of forage, and of course turn out when possible. We can also experiment with the variety of ‘boredom busters’ on sale. For horses with established stereotypic behaviours, it is worth noting research suggests other horses won’t copy them and they are best allowed to continue to express them, unless immediately detrimental to health. .