Low-Stress Horse Husbandry

Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price

Welfare-friendly handling can increase horse well-being and human safety

Katherine Houpt is a veterinarian behaviorist who has witnessed many instances of dangerous and undesirable equine behavior. These behaviors often stem from anxiety and not animosity. For example, the Miniature Horse has a history of striking and rearing at his veterinarian and farrier. Houpt explained that the Mini’s expressions, eyes and ears displayed fear, not aggression to the owner.

Houpt, VMD., PhD., Dipl., says that horses are scared by a lot of the things we do as veterinarians. ACVB, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca (New York). “We must learn to understand the horse’s emotions.”

Adopting welfare-friendly handling techniques can increase equine safety and well-being. These practices can be integrated into your horse management program.

Make Positive Connections

Houpt says that horses can be taught to accept unpleasant veterinary procedures by offering food rewards. Houpt suggests that horses be introduced to these procedures as low-stress situations using positive stimuli such as:

  • First practice with applesauce or molasses in a clean dosing needle to teach the horse how to take oral medication.
  • You can teach your horse to take injections by pinching the skin of his neck and giving him a treat.

Camie Heleski PhD, senior lecturer at University of Kentucky in Lexington, states that owners should introduce their horses to veterinarians and farriers before they need their assistance. “When I take another horse to the vet or farrier, I will give them a treat or scratch so that the horse doesn’t get bad experiences from seeing or smelling the vet.

Heleski recommends that you incorporate rewards into all aspects of your handling techniques. This goes beyond farrier and vet procedure prep. She says that positive reinforcement is not used often enough. This means giving the horse a reward for performing what we ask. “It’s not just about ‘good boy’, but positive reinforcement for horses such as wither scratching or food treats. However, this does not mean that you should allow’mugging’.

She explains that verbal praise may not be enough for horses if it isn’t accompanied by concrete rewards in the past.

When performing unpleasant or difficult tasks for horses, it might be worth “working smarter and not harder”. Heleski recommends that owners keep hay on hand, such as when treating hoof abscesses or treating scratches. She says, “If there is an easy way to do it, and it does not cause any harm to anyone,”

Low-Stress Horse

Simpler treatments can lead to less stress and safer experiences. Robin Foster, PhD., CAAB., CHBC, research professor at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma (Washington), says that routine veterinary care and farrier care are only mildly uncomfortable. “Reducing horse distress and increasing safety requires that you address the root cause of anxiety as soon as possible. Then, use low-stress positive behavior modification techniques to improve the horse’s safety. Training must be done between vet and farrier appointments. The training aims to alter the horse’s feelings so that they feel relaxed during routine health care procedures.

Houpt says that no matter what type of training you use, it doesn’t really matter what kind of horse you are if you listen to their emotions. She says that horses will often give feedback to us through their eyes, ears and facial expressions. It’s not magic.

Keep a Natural State at home

A horse’s health and well-being depends on his lifestyle. Lauren Fraser, a colleague of mine, said that if we give horses the “three F’s” (friends and forage, freedom of movement), then we will make great strides towards their welfare. It’s always my preference for horses to be outside, depending on their goals and as long as we are not dealing with injured horses. I also like to allow them to forage on pasture and hay. Horses would be free to move in the wild for many hours. It puts horses in awkward situations when we pretend this is not their natural behavior (science of animal behaviour).

Even competition horses require time to be horses. Houpt says that researchers have found that nearly 90% of performance horses will develop gastric ulcers in their lifetimes. This makes it worthwhile to consider whether we can manage stress, which is one of the main causes. She adds that high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, can also affect the immune system.

Houpt reminds owners to make sure their horses are happy and able to graze all the time. Increase turnout and access to forage, which could increase gut motility, decrease colic and reduce the risk of gastric ulcers, might be a good idea. Exercise and turnout can increase bone density, improve immune function, and improve overall health.

Horses can suffer from chronic stress just like people. Foster says that horses respond to short-term, acute stressors in an adaptive way. This involves rapid adrenaline release and preparation for action. Foster says that horses quickly return to their normal behavior and physiology. Chronic stress can lead to a poor welfare state due to routine and stressful handling.

She adds that stereotypic behavior (cribbing and weaving) and signs and symptoms of chronic stress are common indicators of a poor welfare status for horses and other animals. An equine veterinarian should evaluate horses for signs of chronic stress. These include muscle wasting and impaired liver function, disruption of reproduction, and suppression or the immune system. Gastric ulcers in horses may be a sign that the horse is under chronic stress.

The Two-Minute/30 Second Rule

Doug Thal, DVM and Dipl., was inspired by the difficulties his staff and clients had with horses in tasks like trailer-loading and administering medication. ABVP, owner of Thal Equine LLC and creator of Horse Side Vet Guide, began implementing a “two-minute/30-second” guideline to train his staff. You should not be trying to do something with your horse for longer than two minutes and failing to make progress for at least 30 seconds.

  • Do I have any experience with managing this situation with horses?
  • Do I break this down into smaller pieces and reward each step?
  • Are my safety parameters being met? For example, if you are trailer-loading your horse, ensure that he is not facing a sharp corner or wire fence. Thal says, “We can get distracted in pushing towards whatever goal we are striving for and before we know it we can be out of balance or in danger situations.” “The world is constantly changing and you have to adapt to it.”
  • Is there anyone I can ask for help with this?
  • Can you explain to me the steps I’m taking to reach my goal? Thal says that handling horses should be precise and logical. You should understand what you’re doing, why it is happening, and when it is happening. It is a sign of true understanding and awareness when you can describe or articulate something.
  • Are there any methods to what I’m doing? Or am I stuck in the struggle?
  • What are some other approaches I could use to complete this task?
  • Do I feel connected to the horse?
  • Do I have the best interests of my horse by the way I approach the task? Are there other approaches I could use to complete this task?

Thal says, “Things should almost always seem easy with horses.” You should be able accomplish your goal quickly, efficiently, and quietly. You shouldn’t blame or label the horse. Be honest with yourself. You must be honest with yourself if you don’t see any progress in handling any horse or can’t explain why. Anyone who works with horses, trainers and farriers included, should follow the two-minute/30 second rule.

Natalie DeFee Mendik

Reduce Stress on The Road

Transport is another situation that can cause stress, and Foster doesn’t need much imagination to see why.

She says that many horses are reluctantly loaded into trailers. It can be difficult to enter a dark, narrow, enclosed box. However, this is followed up by being locked in for hours, struggling to balance in the moving vehicle, and eventually ending up somewhere new where the horse will often have to work hard.

“Trailing involves many elements. There are many strategies that can be used to reduce stress when trailering. If trailer training is started when horses are young and is done often, it is more likely that trailering will be routine and boring.

Houpt says that trailer loading skills should be introduced to horses as soon as they are foals. She says that it is easier to start early.

Houpt suggests breaking down the process, starting with control over each step and making sure that the horse stops and starts on command. It’s better to move the hoof first, then offer a treat, then two hooves, and then treat. Rather than resorting to negative reinforcement (rewarding horses by taking away unpleasant stimuli, such as tapping their rump with whips until they step forward), Houpt suggests. If you have problems with trailer loading later, please…

The horse can trot around you, which can be enough to deter; the horse realizes that he has a break from the work when it moves towards the trailer.

The stress of loading horses can make traveling with them to competitions, trail rides or other events nerve-wracking. Trigger stacking is when multiple stressors occur simultaneously or close together. This can happen with trailering when horses are calling or in unfamiliar environments with strange sights and sounds.

Heleski says, “Maybe the horse could be content with just one thing, but it’s not uncommon to see horses explode.”

It might help to practice skills before the big day, and only introduce one stressor at once. It is a good idea to practice trailer loading on calm days, go to the showgrounds before the competition or take a ride on a trailer with an experienced horse.

The result? The Result?

Heleski believes that it is important to go beyond just managing and training horses. It is also important to provide a horse with a high quality of life. She has seen a shift from merely meeting basic needs to a holistic approach for horse care.

Foster believes this shift in perspective is evident in the shift of welfare standard protocols from 1979 Farm Animal Welfare Council’s Five Freedoms model (freedom form hunger and thirst; pain from injury or disease; freedom from normal behavior; and freedom away from fear and distress; to the Five Opportunities To Thrive model by Vicino and Miller, 2013, which offers the opportunity for a balanced diet, self-maintenance; opportunity for optimal health; chance to exhibit species-specific behaviors; and options for control and choice).

Foster states that Foster’s efforts went beyond complying and were more focused on animal welfare, both positive and negative. Foster also stated that they have reduced the impact of poor welfare conditions.

However, if you polled horse owners, you’d get a wide range of responses about what their horses believe is the best quality of life. Foster says that even though there are common welfare guidelines, it is difficult to determine how to apply them to each animal. “Horses also have a fascinating intersection between livestock and companion animals. Objective information is not available to compare different welfare practices in horses.”

Situation-dependent best practices, such as 24/7 turnout vs. stalled parts of the day, are not always possible. Foster says that while handling and management practices can help horses thrive, each horse is unique and every person’s history plays a part. Foster says that animal welfare is evaluated by looking at positive and negative indicators. This includes assessing the horse’s behavior, health, and emotional state.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!