Is Your Horse Stressed?

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We've talked a bit about the importance of food and movement for the horse but what about social life? 

Yes, horses DO have social lives. They have emotions. They engage and play with others. They nurture and encourage one another. They teach each other. They heal each other and they live with each other in a cadence that sometimes is only understood by another horse.

Once again I will reiterate - one cannot separate the hooves from the rest of the horse and that is why we are going through these topics of concern about horses and their hooves.

When a horse is negatively stressed the natural response, just like humans, is to begin sending signals to the brain for flight.

The signals reach the amygdala— the flight or fight center of the brain. This part of the brain also helps with regulation of hormones. The amygdala then alerts the hypothalamus - and that is the part that controls hormone production.

And now we've got adrenaline aka cortisol rushing through the bloodstream and traveling throughout the body. 

Cortisol boosts blood sugar, too, and the horse is primed for fight or flight.

(A stressed horse HAS to move its hooves. As much as you or I must blink and close our eyes to protect from insults, the horse HAS to move to protect from threats.)

Where does that cortisol land? Well, think of gravity -- it lands in the hooves. 

What else happens during stress?  The immune system is reactive. With each incidence of negative stress the immune system is weakened just bit. 

What is the immune system?  It is the defender of the body. 

So you see we've got a whole body response to negative stress. 

There are two different types of stress: Acute (short term) and Chronic (Long term). 

Acute Stress floods the bloodstream with hormones as we just learned. The body also releases small proteins called cytokines which help to regulate the immune response. And, actually, in the 1990's a neuro-immunologist at Stanford University, Firdaus Dhabhar, studied and discovered that acute stress can actually help the immune system become stronger BUT .... 

Now we have Chronic Stress. 

Long standing, repeated Chronic Stress causes the body to activate the stress response constantly. The body and brain can’t reset hormones and inflammatory chemicals to normal levels, thus damaging the immune system. This cause deteriorating health overall.

To add ‘insult to injury”, It is important to know that long term states of elevated cortisol leads to increased blood sugar levels and depressed insulin levels. (Insulin resistance/Diabetes)

We all know that IR horses are prone to hoof maladies such as laminitis and repeated abscessing among other situations like White Line Disease, Thrush, Yeast and more.

So – that tells us how negative stress affects the hooves! 

Well, now you ask, how does the horse’s social life affect his stress levels?

Here’s a quick synopsis of the natural horse:

The Natural Horse has the …

  • Ability to see all around them with no walls obscuring their vision. (Remember, horses are not cave dwellers.)
  • Ability to run at will or when feeling threatened or just to play and interact with other herd members.
  • Ability to lie down and rest with a ‘sentry guard’ to watch for predators and other perceived threats - Horses require at least 20 minutes a day of REM sleep for optimal health.
  • Ability to choose where to lie down; under the shade tree or out in the open sun filled field.
  • Ability to take flight when needed. Horses HAVE to move their feet when feeling threatened; it’s an inherent hard-wiring of their species.
  • Ability to socialize and play with other herd members.
  • Ability to keep moving at self-chosen pace/gait for premium musculoskeletal, cardiac and respiratory health.
  • Ability to be part of its environment and the events around them. Horses are naturally outgoing, gregarious and curious animals. (“10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves”, Chapter 1)

I LOVE a horse who is allowed to be a horse – a happy, healthy horse with healthy hooves.

There are ways to minimize the stressors in your horse’s life with a bit of creative thinking … so, think about your horse(s) and how YOU can minimize negative stress for him/her.

Remember – a happy horse contributes to healthy hooves.

I've forgotten to mention in previous posts that I welcome discussion, questions and comments so be sure to engage!!  For more personal questions you can always get ahold of me through email so don't be shy!  I'd love to talk with you!  

Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:


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