pro tips for understanding your horse's anxiety
Seeing the whole picture is the first step to solving the problem.
Equine anxiety can be very hard to address especially if you aren’t sure of the exact causes of it. To adequately help your horse overcome anxiety you’ll need to explore it a bit deeper. My hope is that this post allows you to stop fighting for their attention and start looking at their triggers + reactions from their perspecitve.
After working with countless horses struggling with anxiety I’d like to help you understand their concerns. I chose these particular points based on the issues I see owners misreading or being confused about most often. Hopefully, they’ll give you a more complete and compassionate view of what your horse is feeling.
Understanding Equine Anxiety (the horse's perspective)
1. Your on the same team
Your anxious horse is not trying to work against you or your goal. Their actions are driven by anything they think will help them to feel safe. When our horses become anxious during an exercise it’s easy to think they’re acting up to avoid work. Looking at the bigger picture you will usually find that your horse is not trying to avoid the work itself but rather something in particular about the work that’s troubling them. Maybe the way they are being cued has them on edge or perhaps their confidence took a nosedive when the difficulty of an exercise increased. If you find that your horse’s worry has them looking for a way out of an activity take a step back and pinpoint the exact moment that the evasive behavior started and you will find the source of the problem.
2. Chain reactions trigger Anxiety
Anxiety is impacted by more than just the environment. It’s usually pretty easy to spot environmental factors that are causing your horse to be stirred up. We all know that horse that loses it’s marbles every time the wind starts howling. But what we don’t usually pick up on are more subtle factors impacting their confidence such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, immune system weaknesses, physical pain, hormones, genetics, and nutrition just to name a few. If you’re looking to ease anxiety I encourage you to approach it with as much openness as possible. Being open to making mental, physical, emotional, and environmental changes will be what ultimately bring balance to your horse.
3. Becoming overly sheltered can make it worse
Natural healthy stress is good for horses and helps to reset their natural response system. Trying to create a completely stress-free environment will ultimately make your horse become more sensitive to being triggered. By sheltering our horses from every little thing and arranging their lives so they don’t have to think on their own or use any natural survival skills they will become more helpless and easily overwhelmed. The key here is setting up their environment with natural stressors that they are capable of working through. For example, putting out their food in a different area of the pasture every day and letting them figure out how to find it like they would have to do to survive in nature is a great way to add natural healthy stress. Your horse gets to use their instincts productively and be confident in their survival skills.
4. Senses become heightened
Stress can cause heightened senses. For example when your horse is anxious something as simple as the radio playing too loud can make it hard to concentrate. Taking an assessment of the sights, sounds, and smells in the area will show you things that may be contributing to their overwhelm.
5. Hear them out
Horses need to feel their concerns are being heard in order to overcome them. Blowing off your horse’s worries takes a dig at the trust in your relationship. Imagine telling two friends that you’re afraid of ghosts. One tells you to shut up, ghosts aren’t real and you’re being an idiot. The other one asks why you’re afraid and offers to help you face your fear. Naturally, you’ll feel more comfortable with the friend that offers to help without judgment. Next time your horse starts stirring with worry, have the patience to be the second friend and help them explore what’s going on.
6. Proactive guidance
Telling your horse to STOP feeling anxious doesn’t help them to feel better. We’ve probably all done it. Saying calm down, relax. The problem with this approach to anxiety is that it doesn’t give the horse any instruction of things they can DO. Remember anxiety is an involuntary reaction if they could just calm down and relax they would (they have no desire to feel anxious and are probably just as annoyed about it as you are). Instead, give them more guidance with small specific action steps that they are capable of doing. Be sure you are strategic with these action steps, working toward lowering stress not just making your horse busy.
7. Anxiety responds well to multifaceted support
Overcoming anxiety works best with a multifaceted approach. Trying one method and getting lackluster results doesn’t mean that the method is faulty it usually means that it needs to be paired with additional support to be more effective. For example, let’s say you’re using systematic desensitization to slowly help your horse feel comfortable being separated from his buddy but you aren’t making any consistent progress. No matter how many baby steps you take, you’re not getting anywhere near having a horse that is confined on his own. The method isn’t necessarily wrong but your horse may need additional support along with it such as a supplement to address a magnesium deficiency or essential oils to feel more grounded during the process. Don’t be afraid to troubleshoot combinations till you find the right recipe.
7. Don't sweep it under the rug
Ordering your horse around does not reduce anxiety. When we start making an anxious horse busy it can appear that they are not as stirred up. Unfortunately, all the horse has learned is that it’s not safe to outwardly show you that they’re worried therefore they redirect it internally. Just like in people, internal worry puts additional stress the entire system which usually leads to bigger health issues down the line. This usually snowballs when these health issues lead to even more anxiety.
I hope that this gives you a better understanding of how your horse feels and just where those feelings are coming from. If your struggling with an anxious horse and want more resources to assist you in relieving their worries this post here takes a deep dive into crafting your own custom action plan for overcoming anxiety.