Stress is an emotional and physical pressure that animals and humans both experience. Horses and dogs, just like people, can be either internalizers or externalizers of stress. The internalizer may mask stress by behaving as if everything is okay; remember the classic Ogden Nash quote about managing stress: “Be like a duck, cool, calm, collected on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath.” The internalizer horses can be hard to read because they are not overt about their stress.
The externalizer tends to vent, rage, over-react. The externalizers let you know they are stressed.
Common stresses for horses are: repeated or regular fear, confinement, and limited vision (confinement where they can’t see other horses). Equines evolved to live in groups and interact with one another. They are prey animals, that have survived 60 million years on the planet by living in groups and running away from danger.
Stress that is in the moment is acute stress. Stress that is ongoing is chronic stress.
Common indicators of acute stress:
Elevated head and neck, ears pricked tightly forward, staring intensely, poor concentration, increased breathing and heart rate, wants to run away, wants to fight, wants to avoid, wants to stop and not move.
Common indicators of chronic stress:
Aggression, wind-sucking, cribbing, weaving, stall walking, picky eating, weight loss, weight gain, irritability, chronic health issues.
Stress and Cortisol:
The first component of the endocrine system to be activated under a stress response releases the catecholamines: epinephrine and norephinephrine: this is the classic fight or flight response. During severe or chronic stress the second battalion of the stress response is activated: hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases cortisol.
Chronic stress and the subsequent release of cortisol has been implicated in a number of health issues including: inhibition of the immune system, increases in gastric or hind gut ulceration, colic, diarrhea, weight gain, weight loss.
Sometimes allergic reactions are triggered by stress, as well as itchy skin, poor wound or injury healing. The body cannot heal and repair itself efficiently when it is under stress.
Diet can play an important role in reducing and managing stress. Horses are designed to eat 20 hours a day so making sure your horse has access to grass or hay all the time is an important component in managing stress.
There are two plants that have been studied for their ability to reduce cortisol: Ashwanganda and Holy Basil. Both of these plants are adaptogens, that is, plants that are able to balance the endocrine, glandular, and circulatory systems. Ginseng and Maca are also adaptogenic plants.
Ashwaganda and Holy Basil have been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. But not until the late 20th century did modern science begin serious studies of these plants and discovered that both these adaptogens reduce cortisol. Ashwaganda does stimulate seratonin in the brain, so for the horses that are externalizers or the tense, hot, spooky horses, this plant is the best choice. For the horses who are internalizers of stress, Holy Basil is the best choice.
Another important component to reducing and managing stress is maintaining a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria. These microorganisms in the GI tract are known as the gut microbiota and are essential for the process of food digestion and play a crucial role in the functioning of the immune system. Colonization of the GI tract requires a minimum of 100 Billion CFUs (Colony Forming Units) of probiotics per day, and can require amounts up to 400 Billion CFUs daily. Make sure when you add a probiotic to a stressed horse’s diet that the CFUs are high enough for colonization of the GI tract. If the probiotic does not have CFUs listed on the label, it is not a viable, live probiotic capable of colonization.
Managing stress in ourselves:
Horses are very sensitive to the stress in other equines and humans. It can become a vicious cycle if a horse becomes chronically stressed and the rider or owner or trainer gets stressed because of the horse’s stress. Managing our own stress around our horses means keeping barn drama out of the stables.
And for managing the human stress, I do recommend finding Ashwaganda at a health food store, along with a good dose of premium chocolate!