‘Quiet’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Chill For Stressed-Out Steeds - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

‘Quiet’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Chill For Stressed-Out Steeds

Recognizing signs of stress in horses isn't always easy, because they don't always weave or call incessantly when anxious. Some horses can seem outwardly calm, yet still be fretful. 

Horses cope with stress in different ways: proactive and reactive. Proactive or active copers try to get themselves out of the situation that is causing stress, often by bucking, balking, rearing, biting, kicking, weaving or in any other negative expression of energy. Reactive or passive coping includes trying to adapt to the situation, often by becoming still. 

This “quietness” is why it can be difficult to recognize that these horses are stressed; horses that are often seen as lazy or stubborn may actually be exhibiting stress responses. A horse that refuses to get on the trailer by simply planting his feet and not moving is trying to tell the handler that they find the trailer scary, but their personality doesn't make them want to bolt – they freeze.

Studies have found that stress levels are not indicative of coping styles. Passive copers may be more stressed out than reactive copers, despite appearing outwardly calm. 

A 2018 study published in Science Direct used 46 privately owned horses to in two separate handling tests: one that asked a horse to be led across a tarp and a second that asked the horse to be led through a curtain of streamers. The eye temperature, heart rate, and heart rate variability were recorded for each horse before and after each test. Each of these are reliable stress response indicators. 

Also recorded was the time it took for the horse to cross the obstacle, as well as their behavior during the test.

Any time a horse stopped for more than 10 seconds was categorized as either a proactive stress response (where the horse was still moving) or reactive stress response (where the horse stood still). 

[Story Continues Below]

When the physiological measurements were compared, the team found that more-compliant horses did not necessarily have lower stress levels than the horses that refused to walk over or through the test. There was also no correlation between physical measurements and reactive horse behaviors. 

The scientists concluded that a horse that appears calm can still be very stressed and that compliance is not a good indicator about how a horse is feeling. 

A horse with reactive coping strategies may still be exhibiting stress behavior like blinking frequently, wrinkling his eyes, dilating his nostrils, refusing to eat hay, or whinnying. The horse's facial expression is often one of the first indicators that something is worrying him. 

Read more at the Equine Ethologist

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More