Jemma Noble BSc (Hons), Nupafeed UK looks at why stabling can cause a horse stress and anxiety and has this a guide to keeping your horse calm and content. First published in Carriage Driving March 2019.

In the early twentieth century, Walter Cannon identified the concept of homeostasis (the idea that the body adapts in order to maintain equilibrium) and coined the term ‘fight or flight’; concepts which are fundamental to our understanding of stress today.

Stress is an important survival response, designed to help the body adapt to environmental challenges. Acute stress is therefore normal and not harmful, such as your horse spooking at a piece of plastic. This response is designed to help your horse evade a predator or fight for food when needed, but it should be short lived. When stress occurs too frequently and persist too long, it can become harmful to your horse’s psychological and physiological wellbeing.

Why is stabling so stressful for horses?

Isolation and confinement are well documented stressors even for people. Undoubtedly this is the case for horses too, likely more so when you consider that they would naturally live in a herd, in open areas, with flight being their primary means of escaping threat.

Another factor is the restriction of their natural instinct to forage, which can become frustrating. Prolonged periods without food can also cause stress through hunger and puts horses at risk of gastric ulceration.

When we stable our horses, not only are we exposing them to known stressors, we are also taking away their control; they are not able to respond effectively. This in itself is likely to confound their perception of stress and lead to unwanted coping behaviours.

Coping mechanisms and signs of stress

Acute stress causes a number of physiological responses including increased heart rate, breathing rate and temperature. These are usually accompanied by behavioural responses including flight, aggression and a generally reactive demeanour.

Chronic stress can manifest itself in many ways and the behavioural adaptations are largely dependent on the individual. Horses come up with different coping mechanisms in order to help them manage their environment.

Coping styles can generally be classed as proactive or reactive. A proactive horse will actively seek a means to evade or manage stress and are much more likely to develop stereotypical behaviours including crib-biting, weaving and box walking. Weight loss is common as they tend to be more active and distracted from their food.

Harder to spot are horses with a reactive coping style. They are more likely to be withdrawn, be fearful and sensitive to touch, their ears are usually back more (but not in aggression) and their head is generally held low. They may even experience something that could be likened to depression, becoming generally unresponsive with a suppressed appetite, and failing to interact with their environment normally. Reactive copers fly under the radar because they are easy to manage, but they are no less stressed than their counterpart who acts out.

It is important to remember that chronic stress is detrimental to your horse’s health; it is a risk factor for laminitis for example. Stress is known to suppress the immune system and promote inflammation. For horses on box rest it should be noted that stress will slow healing, and stereotypical behaviour may risk re-injury.

Managing Box Stress

The fundamental principles are to reduce the feeling of confinement, increase companionship, reduce boredom and increase foraging opportunity. Ensuring a good routine will also help the horse to predict and manage their experience of stress, giving them some sense of control over their environment.

Remember that your horse needs time to learn and adapt, and always take into account their previous learning experiences. If you have owned an ex-racehorse you may have noticed that it actually thrives in a busy yard and may become stressed when turned out. It has adapted to an environment most other horses would find more stressful.

Start by maximising turnout and assessing your horse’s environment. Could you put them in a stable that would feel less confining, gives them a clearer view of other horses, or even stops them being able to see horses that may come and go from view? Try to ensure that they are never left alone, ideally stabling them next to a horse with the same routine (not necessarily their field companion as this can create excessive attachment).

Some stereotypical behaviour is associated with an anxiety of anticipation; feeding and exercising that horse first can help.

Simulate their natural eating habits with a forage based diet, avoiding grained feeds unless specifically required to meet the calorific needs of their work load. For horses or ponies not able to have ab lib hay, use haynets with small holes (or double up). Also consider where you feed; you may need to move their hay so that they can eat and keep an eye on the outside world.

Many people find the use of a feed ball or similar toy is helpful. These are designed to encourage the horse’s natural foraging instinct and can be useful to slow the eating of a good doer.

Installing a stable mirror may also help, it is thought that this is by providing a substitute for social contact, but it could simply be reducing the impression of confinement and/or providing a point of interest. A study, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science1, found that installing a mirror significantly reduced stereotypic weaving and nodding over the course of a five week trail.

Using a Calmer

The right calmer may help your horse to feel more settled in their environment. Magnesium is the most well established calming ingredient because of its role within the body. By residing in certain receptors, magnesium helps to prevent unwanted reactions. It performs this function at each step of the HPA pathway, a sequence on neurochemical messages that bring about the stress response. Supplementing magnesium aims to ensure that your horse has an optimal dietary supply during times of stress.

For horses on box rest it is always worth consulting your vet if you anticipate any severe stress. Sedation is a short term option which may be prudent to help prevent further injury. Most calming supplements can be fed alongside medication, but always check with your vet first.

The bottom line

Stabling provides an unnatural environment for your horse that is likely to result in stress. How your horse behaves in response to stressors will depend on their individual temperament, genetics and previous learning. Remember that not all horses will act out or show stereotypical behaviour.

Help horses to manage their environment by increasing turnout and socialisation, providing companionship when in the stable, and try to enrich their environment by providing foraging opportunities. Ensure that you have addressed their diet using the ‘fibre first’ principle and consider adding a calmer if needed. First published in Carriage Driving March 2019.

For more information:

Reference: 1. Lynn M McAfee, Daniel S Mills & Jonathan J Cooper (2002) The use of mirrors for the control of stereotypic weaving behaviour in the stabled horse . Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 78:2–4: 10:159-173