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STUDY: How horses express stress

September 16, 2018

Just like us humans, horses can experience stress, and some even become ill due to stress. Unfortunately, horses can’t speak so are unable to tell us. That is why it is important to recognize the symptoms of stress and respond appropriately. A number of things can make horses stressed, like being alone, loading and riding in a trailer, veterinary care, farrier work, preparing for and going to shows, changes in weather, changes in routine such as a new stall or a different feeding schedule, stall rest due to injury or illness, and a stressed handler or rider. Horses express psychological stress in several ways.

Weight Loss

Horses that are chronically psychologically stressed can start to lose weight. Since there are many reasons, such as heat stress, parasites, poor feed and health problems, it's necessary to look at all aspects of the horse's care to troubleshoot weight loss.

Stall Walking and Other Vices

Stall walking is when a horse walks around a stall or walks back and forth along one wall repetitively. Weaving, cribbing, wood chewing, wall kicking and fence walking are all signs of stress.


Most of us yawn when we are tired. It's the way our bodies inhale a little extra oxygen to fuel our sleepy brain. Horses, however, don't yawn for the same reason. A University of Guelph study found that yawning may be a way for a horse to release endorphins. Yawning and most horses will do it several times in a row, is a sign that the horse was feeling stressed, and by yawning, is releasing the stress.

Tooth Grinding

Some horses grind their teeth while stabled, some while ridden. Tooth grinding can be a sign of physical or physiological stress. If the horse has no other dental issues, it's important to check for things like ulcers and other sources of chronic pain or stressful situations.

Bad Behaviour

Many examples of poor behaviour while ridden can be caused by physiological or physical stress. Stress can be expressed through pawing, pulling, tail wringing, bucking, rearing, bolting, or being cold backed.

EGUS or equine ulcers

Many performance horses suffer from equine ulcers. This can be in response to a stressful show schedule or other stresses.

Manure and Urination

A horse that is stressed can produce copious amounts of manure in a short time. Some may produce very runny manure. Horses will often urinate if stressed, and if they can't relieve themselves because they can't relax, such as in a trailer or when being ridden, they can become antsier.

Licking and Chewing

Natural horsemanship information has suggested that licking and chewing is a sign that a horse is accepting new information, such as during training. This action may be more like yawning in its function, as a way to release any stress it may have felt.


Colic symptoms can be caused by stress. A new herd mate or changes in routine, whether or handler can be enough to make some horses mildly colicky. Chronic stress can lead to ulcers, which of course, can cause colic symptoms.


Any number of stressful situations can cause a horse to tremble. Just the appearance of the veterinarian, farrier or the arrival of a trailer ​in the yard can cause some horses to start shaking. Usually, as soon as the cause of the stress disappears, the trembling stops.

Temperature, Pulse and Respiration

When a horse becomes stressed, their pulse and respiration rates can increase, sometimes drastically. It's important because of this to know your horse’s basic TPRs. A normal temperature for a horse lies between 36.9 and 38.3 degrees Celsius. Pulse should be anywhere between 28 to 45 beats per minute, usually on the higher side in young foals or small ponies and lower in a big horse. Respiration should be between 8 to 20 breaths per minute. Check your horse’s TPR’s when he’s calm and healthy so you know what to look for when you suspect illness or stress.


As a horse's pulse and respiration may increase when stressed, it may start to sweat (and tremble). Work stress tends to show up between the horse's legs, and under the saddle area and can eventually cover the horse's whole body. It depends on how hard and long the horse works. A stressed horse may sweat in patches, however. Patches of sweat can also show the location of old injuries.

Chewing or Biting

Some horses express stress by biting things, people or other horses.

How to Alleviate Stress

Much stress can be relieved by providing consistent schedules in natural environments, or as much so as possible. This means frequent turnout, with ample access to food, water, and companionship. Show stress is more difficult to remedy but turn out and exercise between shows can be helpful.

Give horses time to acclimatize to new situations, such as new herd mates or stall locations. Do your best to give horses in trailers a smooth ride. It's almost impossible to prevent all stress, but good basic care should take care of most.

Source: BIT magazine &


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