How Can I Tell if My Horse is Stressed?

Our expert shares her thoughts on what causes stress for horses, how they respond to stressful situations, and what we can do about it.
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How Can I Tell if My Horse is Stressed?
Behavioral signs of stress might include unwillingness to work, decreased appetite, flightiness, depression, or some other change in a horse's usual demeanor. | Photo: iStock

Q. What are the signs that my horse is stressed?

A. The word “stress” is a toughie for me, because it’s used so commonly for all sorts of conditions in horses (and people). If I’m really trying to identify stress, I like to break it down into signs and causal factors that can we can objectively identify, measure, and control.

Stress is actually a normal, adaptive response in an animal to cope with any kind of challenge from the environment. In a horse examples of such a challenge include a big change in training or management, parturition (birth), severe weather, or a strange dog in the pasture. Over the short term, we see increased heart rate, sweating, alarm or alertness, and locomotory behaviors (e.g., moving toward shelter or running) appropriate to deal with the stressor

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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