If you’ve ever spent time around a horse, you’ll notice they are prone to startling or can become apprehensive at a turn-of-a-dime. Just like us, it’s common for everyday situations to cause a horse to feel bouts of anxiety.
But caring for an anxious animal that is quite a bit larger than you, puts both you and the horse at risk for injury. And when you have a horse that is experiencing anxiety everyday the odds eventually won’t be in your favor.
Fortunately, equine anxiety is manageable and the sooner you catch it and start treatment the easier the whole process becomes — with the chance at a full recovery.
Let’s look at what causes anxiety, what symptoms you should be on the lookout for, and how you can help your horse.
Five Causes of Anxiety In Horses
There are five main causes of anxiety in horses. Your horse may experience only one or a combination of them. Let’s take a look at them, starting with the most common causes first.
1. Separation Anxiety
Horses are social creatures and easily forms bonds with one another. Sometimes this results in a horse becoming nervous if they’re turnout without their regular partner(s) and will refuse to go. This can be dangerous when separating a horse to groom or ride as they may suddenly attempt to go back.
2. Performance Anxiety
Workplace stress is one of the number one causes of anxiety in humans, and horses share this unfortunate problem. Sometimes we are to blame for this as the horse picks up on our nervous ticks i.e. tightening the reins and rocking in the saddle.
This form of anxiety is particularly tricky as the horse can often carry their performance anxiety into another job or retirement. The horse will experience flashbacks if they hear or see anything that reminds them of the anxiety they experienced during working years.
3. Situational Anxiety
Like all adolescent animals, horses are impressionable when young and their anxiety can often be traced back to something scaring them during their adolescent years.
This anxiety can be tricky to diagnose but if you’re dumbfounded as to why your horse hates having a saddle placed on them or won’t go into the trailer, it may be due to something happened to them when they were young.
4. Change Anxiety
Horses can get stuck in routines. They might not take to a new rider if they’ve only had one for a while, they might not like moving to a closed pasture if you‘ve allowed them to freely roam, etc. The best solution is to go slow and gradually get them used to the change.
Young and high-spirited horses are prone to boredom and will become anxious when cooped up for too long. They’ll pace and try to keep moving as much as their area permits.
Symptoms & Signs of Anxiety In Horses
When caring for a horse — be it riding, training, etc. — it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and signs of anxiety.
A spooked horse is one that’s at risk of injuring themselves or you, and that’s the last thing we want.
- Backing into corner
- Easily Startled
- Pacing / weaving side to side
- Rolling eyes / showing the whites of their eyes
- Tremors / shaking
Treatment for Equine Anxiety
If you suspect that your horse is showing signs of an anxiety condition you should consult your veterinarian first. Horses with anxiety are prone to colic, low-weight, and their hooves and coats can degrade.
Because they are jumpier, they are at risk for physically injuring their hooves, legs, and can tear up their coat when anxiously rubbing against their trailer, area of confinement, etc.
Work With a Trainer
Some forms of anxiety such as separation anxiety are more difficult to treat so working with a trainer is a great idea. And remember from above, sometimes it’s us unknowingly causing our horse to feel anxious through cues.
A trainer can help with this as well, so if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to consult outside help.
CBD oil for horses is a great anxiety relief aid that won’t hinder their performance or bring along a list of side effects. People find it helps take the edge off their horse and makes it easier to calm them down and reach them when they are having an anxiety attack.
Precise Riding Aids
We have a number of ways we communicate to our horses what we want them to do something, be it verbal or through our legs, the crop, or the bit. With anxious horses, you want to go slow on driving them with command after command.
You Are Their Comfort
Our last and most important treatment for an anxious horse is you, and you being there for your horse. With an anxious horse, you don’t want to overload their senses.
An easy way to exacerbate your horse’s anxiety is to have them interacting with a lot of people, using too many rider aids, etc.
You really want to focus on building a close relationship with them. Learn to read their body language and pick up on their behavior.
Don’t baby them, however.
You still want to gently push them in training, etc. to make progress. It’s about taking baby steps, rewarding them when they do, and knowing when to stay calm yourself and not push or scold them when they mess up.
The relationship between you and your horse is essential if you want to truly help them with their anxiety.