Managing Anxiety and Stress in Horses – Part 1

merry-4For horses, the role of natural medicine where anxiety and stress form part of the symptoms is to aid the balance of inner and external harmony between the two environments enabling a healthy functioning of the body.

The nervous system is a complex control mechanism that has a profound connection with the entire body and plays an important role between the external and internal environments in the form of sensory perception and psychological interpretation of the external world and the body’s physical reaction to it.

It is the system in the body that has the ability to store and associate sensory stimuli in the memory for future use enabling it to react quickly to changes in the two environments affecting changes in both the physical and mental states of the body.

The ability to react to this information is highly sophisticated in horses as is demonstrated by their remarkable motor coordination skills which are even more enhanced by the fact that horses are equipped with highly sensitive and acute perception, all of which can have profound effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of the body.

Because the horse is essentially a flight animal, it has a high dependence on the nervous system to interpret incoming stimuli and coordinate the functioning of the body to enable fast reactions to potential threatening situations.

Unfortunately, the two environments are often at odds with each other as mental interpretation of external stimuli can become clouded by conflicting information causing mental and physical exhaustion.

This is where natural medicine can be used to powerful effect by gently stimulating and relaxing the neural pathways of the nervous system re-establishing harmony to the system in combination with other herbs that effect weakened functioning of the other organs of the body.

Horses are very good at making associations and because they have an excellent memory, they sometimes cause difficulties for their trainers and riders. They make these associations by the linking of two external events. For example, a rustling in the hedge and a dog rushing out to attack or walking too close to a dominant horse initiates a kick. Learning by forming associations between actions and events prepares the horse for survival in a world of constantly changing situations.

In a herd this is very beneficial for the horse but when it is in a domestic environment, these associations can be the cause a lot of problems for trainers, riders and the horse, as bad responses are formed through associations initiated by a combination of a lack of understanding of how horses learn and bad training techniques.

For example, if the horse has been whipped for failing to comply with a rider’s demands, it will respond with a fear response every time a whip is produced. This experience is stored in the memory together with a set of behvioural responses that not only affect the mental wellbeing of the horse, but also the physical wellbeing causing anxiety for both the horse and any future owners. It is easy to see how behavioural problems manifest a life time of unhappiness as the horse is passed from owner to owner and the physiological state of the horse becomes more and more fragile.

Whilst herbal solutions for anxiety and stress aid in the recovery of balance within the body, it forms only part of ongoing therapy. Re-training, nutrition, chiropractic, massage, stretching and energy work can also be important factors for complete recovery. It’s also important to ensure that saddles and bridles are fitted correctly.

Les Rees