How Do You Know If a Horse is Stressed?

A few weeks ago, I was working to load a never-been-trailered horse with the help of a fellow equestrian. It was not going well -- while I stick to R+ (positive reinforcement methods) with my training, I had allowed the other person to give it a try with their traditional horsemanship techniques (pressure), and the horse was becoming increasingly agitated and stressed out. She began exhibiting stress behaviors that were very clear to me: snorting, nostrils flaring, head raised very high with her body tensed, raising her tail, frequently defecating, and attempting to bolt and escape the closed-off area we were in. When I expressed my observations and concern about the stress level of the horse, the other equestrian argued that she believed the horse was merely being "defiant" and that her behaviors did not indicate stress.

At the time, I was too tired and worn out to formulate a proper verbal defense. I realized that the session was going absolutely nowhere after two hours and called it quits. But in the days and weeks afterward, I thought more and more about the disagreement we had and realized that this is a major topic that needs addressing.

Stress, of course, is naturally occurring and also human-imposed onto domesticated horses. We cannot completely eliminate stress - that's not my goal here and it's not realistic (though we should try to reduce it as much as possible). But many of us were never taught how to recognize stress in our horses, and so horses continually get pushed past their breaking point and then blamed for their reactions to situations. Let me be clear: a stressed horse is NOT a naughty or defiant horse. They are merely reacting to a situation the way their natural behavior dictates.

While many people can identify the most obvious signs of fear -- whites of the eyes, trembling -- there are many more subtle signs that fall along a spectrum of behaviors. How do we know that these are signs of stress? Because worthy equine scientists have done the work to show that these behaviors correlate with an increase of the stress hormone called cortisol.

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Signs of Stress in Horses 8 × 11
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