Horse shows are exciting events that competitive equestrians count the days toward on their calendars. We readily await the chance to get off the farm and showcase our horses and our skills in the show ring or pen. For our horses, though, shows can be sources of anxiety and stress.
While we can’t eliminate stress from show environments completely, we can take steps to minimize it for horse welfare and human safety. Carissa Wickens, PhD, assistant professor and extension equine specialist in the University of Florida’s Department of Animal Sciences, in Gainesville, recommended ways to do just that.
Horses encounter a variety of stressors before and during a show, said Wickens, including:
- Transport to the competition venue;
- Social separation from herdmates;
- An unfamiliar environment;
- Increased activity and arousal; and
- Changes in housing, including more time spent in a stall.
The level of stress associated with these factors depends on the horse’s experience, distance traveled, stall location on the showgrounds, and more.
Why Should We Care?
From a welfare perspective, owners should be concerned about their horses experiencing severe acute stress or, worse, chronic stress.
While some stress is normal and acceptable, said Wickens, “if we continue to show without doing our part to acclimate our horses in an effort to minimize stress, chronic or long-term stress could occur, potentially leading to detrimental effects related to health,” such as reduced immune function and gastric ulceration.
Stressed horses, who are often more reactive and aroused at competitive events, might also misbehave, posing a safety risk to themselves and their handlers, she said. On the far end of the spectrum, the chronically stressed horse might even shut down mentally.
“Stress over time might be manifested not as bad behavior but horses becoming withdrawn and not performing as well,” Wickens explained. “So in addition to not feeling as well as they could, horses can also experience learned helplessness, where they can’t escape that stressful and fearful environment. That’s the extreme, but we do have to be careful. Observing how our horses are responding to the show environment is very important.”
As a rider and handler, you can take steps to help your horse feel good and perform well while also keeping yourself safe.
Get your horse used to traveling to low-stress events first.
Take short trips to different environments so your horse can get out and see new things before introducing him to a busy show venue. Wickens recommended outings to other farms and to smaller and quieter events such as schooling shows and clinics.
“In gradual increments, practice taking them away from the home barn to meet other horses and be in different environments, but with low pressure,” she said. “Give them the opportunity to acclimate to a show without it being the biggest and most competitive one, because if the stakes aren’t as high for you, the rider or trainer, you’re not going to be as stressed, which helps your horse not be as stressed.”
Practice stabling at home if your horse isn’t used to a stall.
If you’re planning to stay overnight at the show venue, give horses that typically live outside the chance to adjust to housing changes by bringing them into a stall for increasing periods at home first.
Reduce transport stress.
Prepare your horse properly for transport, especially before trips longer than four hours, said Wickens, to mitigate transport stress that can lead to immune, respiratory, and gastrointestinal issues. This includes making sure your horse is well-adjusted to the trailer (study results [Schmidt et al., 2010] show that horses need up to 10 practice trips to acclimate to transport, said Wickens), has access to plenty of forage before and during the trip, and can lower his head to drain accumulated nasal fluids and particulate matter upon arrival.
“When you get to the showgrounds, feed their hay from the stall floor so they are naturally in a grazing position, and let debris drain out of their nasal passage,” she said, adding that hand-grazing works well, too, particularly if you’re just hauling in and don’t have access to a stall.
Minimize separation anxiety.
If your horse experiences separation stress when taken away from his stall or pasturemates, practice short periods of separation before taking him to a horse show, said Wickens. Sometimes a companion horse can help him stay calm on the trailer or at the showgrounds; other times, it can make the issue worse each time you take him out to ride or show.
“Every time you have to take one to a class, it keeps introducing and even escalating that separation stress,” she explained. “One suggestion is to physically separate them on the showgrounds, so they’re not in the same barn and can’t see or hear each other.”
Provide gastrointestinal support.
To reduce horses’ chances of developing transport- and stress-related gastric ulcers, ask your veterinarian about supplementing or medicating with an ulcer prevention product before hauling to the show.
Offer free-choice forage.
Make sure your horse has constant access to hay. This helps reduce gastric ulcer risk, prevent boredom, and provide a distraction from the busy atmosphere around him.
“Engaging in natural foraging behavior can help reduce stress,” said Wickens.
Also, pack your own feed and forage to the showgrounds so as not to upset your horse’s digestive system. Wickens recommends bringing jugs of water from home or adding a flavoring agent to the water at the showgrounds (acclimate the horse to flavorings at home first) to encourage normal drinking behavior.
Find quiet moments.
Allow your horse to get out of his stall and away from the commotion periodically. “Take them out and hand-walk or hand-graze,” said Wickens, “Or find a quieter area where you can work on light groundwork or longeing—something you can do where you’re relaxed and the horse is as relaxed as possible.”
Give your horse daily exercise.
Remember that your horse is spending more time in confinement at the show. Even if he’s stalled at home, he’s not getting his routine exercise and turnout. As such, your horse might benefit from more exercise than just warming up and heading to the show ring. Take him for walks or hacks or even spend a few minutes on the longe line to reduce that nervous energy.
Don’t overface your horse.
Ensure your horse is well-prepared to do the job you’re about to ask of him.
“Make sure you are entering classes that are appropriate and not at a level above the horse’s training or physical ability,” said Wickens. “Otherwise, you’re trying to ask that horse to do something it’s not physically or mentally prepared to do.”
Also, don’t wait until you get to the showgrounds to try to teach your horse something new.
Curious and mouthy horses might benefit from objects to play with. “If they’re used to having toys or enrichment in their stall or paddock, bring some of those familiar items with them so you’re setting up the stall at the show to be as much like home as possible and keeping their brain occupied while they’re not being ridden.”
Check tack fit.
Make sure your saddle and bridle fit well and are applied properly (e.g., the noseband isn’t too tight) so as not to cause pain or discomfort, said Wickens. “Horses will experience less stress and perform better when they are comfortable,” she said.
Add calming products to your whole-horse approach.
If your horse continues to struggle with stress despite making management and preparation changes, you might experiment with products that contain horse-show-legal amounts of ingredients such as magnesium and tryptophan.
“Some products are meant to have a calming effect, but there’s little scientific evidence proving their effectiveness,” said Wickens. “Some of these products could have some potential if used in conjunction with the management that’s being implemented to help prepare and familiarize horses with the stressors we’re going to introduce them to.”
She cautions, however, against relying on calming products without first preparing your horse properly to show.
“Read labels and be careful, and don’t rely on the day of the show putting your horse on the trailer and expecting a pheromone or oral supplement to fix the problem,” Wickens says. “Try these things for a while to make sure they’re working for your horse.”
Your anxiety level can affect your horse’s. “Part of the horse’s anxiety and stress is also the rider,” said Wickens. “We have evidence that horses do truly read our heart rate. When our heart rate goes up, our stress hormones go up, and the horse is taking that on as well.”
The more you can relax and be calm, rather than getting excited or nervous with anticipation of competing, the better. Learn stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises or meditation, you can practice at shows.
Consider the transport, lifestyle, social, and activity changes horses face when they go to a show, and take steps to minimize those stressors to keep your horse performing at his best.
“Some stress is going to come with the territory, and that’s appropriate from a horse welfare perspective,” said Wickens, “but the goal is to minimize the stress by preparing our horses and promoting fair training and management practices during and outside of competition.”
Doing so can help your horse feel good physically and mentally and help you stay safe on the ground and under saddle.