By Angela Ardolino
Updated on January 6, 2021
Similar to dogs, and us, horses can also suffer from anxiety and stress. The two most common types of anxiety found in horses include performance anxiety and separation anxiety; each of which must be handled with care to ensure a horse’s well-being. Determining why your horse is anxious may be troublesome at first, but the more you observe her or his behavior, you will begin to learn what is causing it.
Causes of Anxiety in Horses
What upsets our horses is similar, but also very different, than what upsets us, our dogs, or cats. Horses are herd animals and a prey species. This means, by nature, they are more prone to a flight response when they become fearful.
Your horse will instinctively run when something is frightening or stress-causing. In the wild, horses who run faster more effectively escape predators. This characteristic still resides within our domesticated horses today just as many of our dogs’ traits are derived from their ancestors.
This makes horses a bit more susceptible to anxiety-based behaviors than our dogs and cats are. Although our cats and dogs are prey in the wild from time to time, their natural instincts head toward being natural predators, which lead them to determine their fight or flight instincts based on their situation. Horses are herbivores meaning their diet consists of what they find while grazing (no meat).
Horses also travel in herds and, therefore, possess a herd mentality and seek companionship in order to feel safe and secure. Safety is found in numbers to a horse. We are generally known to be our horse’s safe haven, especially if there aren’t any other horses in the barn or pasture with them.
When their natural instincts aren’t supported, that’s where anxiety may kick in. For example, when your mare or stallion is stuck in a 12’ x 12’ stall, that doesn’t exactly suit their natural environment. Naturally, they are born to be able to walk around, graze, eat small meals, and experience freedom among other horses.
Symptoms of Horse Anxiety
Depending on the cause, horses may exhibit several behaviors in response to their anxiety including the following:
Weave-walking: Weaving from side-to-side or swaying side-to-side. They may walk sideways a few steps and then continue the same routine continuously. If the stall is large enough, you may also notice pacing or walking in circles.
Shaking: Horses may shake or tremble while standing or being walked/ridden. You will likely be able to visibly notice her skin switching.
Rolled eyes: When a horse is frightened, you may see her eyes roll back with a tight posture.
Backing into the Corner: If a horse is confined to a stall, you may notice her back herself into the corner to feel more secure.
Bolting: The horse may run off to another area if he or she isn’t confined
Reducing Horse Anxiety
If you are a skilled trainer, or knowledgeable about horses, there are a few steps you can take yourself to reduce a horse’s anxiety levels. Before you work on the behavioral side, you should first have your horse examined by a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical causes for the anxiety. Horses may sometimes display symptoms of anxiety due to pain or inflammation, or some other type of medical condition.
Once your horse has been provided a good bill of health from the veterinarian, you can begin to help ease your horse’s anxiety by making her feel safe and secure. Spending additional time with your horse, especially if you have been absent, is particularly important. Grooming your horse on a regular basis and hand-feeding can help her feel closer to you.
Establishing a routine can also make horses feel more at ease. Providing structure through the day can help give your horse added security. Feed your horse at the same time each day, walk her at the same time each day, and/or ride at about the same time each day. Establishing a social routine is equally as important as a feeding routine.
Making sure the changes to her life and environment are limited may also help. If there are new surroundings, provide a sufficient amount of time for her to acclimate to the new environment. Don’t expect too much too quickly.
Alternative Method: CBD
Providing a dose of CBD may prove helpful to ease your horse’s anxiety, especially in cases where a horse hasn’t had much socialization or has experienced some type of trauma. Every animal possesses something known as the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating many processes within the body and keeping them in balance (homeostasis). Within the endocannabinoid system, there are various receptors that react to cannabinoids, like CBD. That’s how anxiety may be reduced; with the use of CBD and it’s interaction with your horse’s endocannabinoid system.
According to research, “CBD has a broad pharmacological profile, including interactions with several receptors known to regulate fear and anxiety-related behaviors, specifically the cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1R), the serotonin 5-HT1A receptor, and the transient receptor potential (TRP) vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1) receptor.” Essentially, what this means is, by reacting with receptors within the endocannabinoid system, CBD communicates with hormones to reduce feelings of anxiety. Hormones, like serotonin, are responsible for balancing mood, happiness, and well-being. When the serotonin receptor communicates with CBD, it allows more serotonin to remain in the body thus boosting mood and reducing anxiety.
A 2013 article published in Neuropharmacology found that “in addition to modulating basal anxiety states, recent studies suggest an important role for the endocannabinoid (eCB) and glucocorticoid systems in the modulation of emotional states and extinction of aversive memories in animals.” This means CBD can help in facilitating the removal of aversive (bad) memories to reduce symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or panic disorders in people and animals.
Sleep is also associated with stress and anxiety. Studies have found CBD can assist with the regulation of sleep patterns in both people and animals. A 2019 study published in the Permanente Journal found that CBD has a calming effect on the central nervous system and can improve both how much sleep a mammal (like us or our animals) gets as well as the depth of sleep. And, CBD is better tolerated than other psychiatric medications commonly recommended in the traditional world of medicine.
Saftey of CBD
When reviewing the safety of CBD, studies show safety and side effects of CBD in humans is CBD is very safe to use with only minor side effects such as diarrhea, tiredness, and changes in mood and appetite. Studies on pets also have similar results. For example, a research study regarding the use of CBD for dogs with arthritis found no observable side effects.
A survey provided to veterinarians also found an increasing number of veterinary professionals are beginning to recommend CBD for pets. Many note that they’ve been able to give CBD to dogs safely with no harm whatsoever. CBD is very safe for your animals, but ensure you are providing a high quality, animal-based full-spectrum product.
Using CBD has minimal side effects, no risk of addiction, and it is impossible to overdose on CBD. CBD is an extremely risk-free substance, but it’s critical our animals use animal-targeted products specifically and not a product designed for humans. It’s also important to mention, not all products are created equal. One CBD product can be completely different than the next.
CBD is an unregulated field. To ensure you are purchasing a high-quality, pure product, request the company provide you with a certificate of analysis to prove what IS in the bottle, as well as what isn’t (like heavy metals and toxic pesticides). If the company isn’t willing to do so, there’s likely a reason.
As with any animal, or person, patience is key when handling anxiety. Anxiety isn’t a condition that will go away in a day; it’s something that must be worked upon on a regular basis. With the steps above, you should begin to see an improvement. For some horses, this may take as few as a couple of weeks. For others, it may be a month or longer before you can visibly notice improvement.
About Angela Ardolino
Angela Ardolino is a holistic pet expert who has been caring for animals for over 20 years and operates a rescue farm, Fire Flake Farm, in Florida. She is also the owner of Beautify the Beast, a natural pet salon and shop. After getting her certificate in Medical Cannabis Biology and Therapeutic use from the University of Vermont School of Medicine, she founded CBD Dog Health to provide high quality, all-natural medical cannabis products designed specifically for pets. Angela has seven dogs, Odie a 12-year-old mini-schnauzer, Nina an 8-year-old Doberman. Jolene a 7-year-old mutt, Maza a 7-year-old mutt, Rhemi an 8-year-old poodle, Potato a 15-year-old shih-tzu, and Miss Daisie a 15-year-old black lab, plus 4-10 more at any time she is fostering or boarding. She uses Full Spectrum Hemp Extract on all her pets at her rescue farm every day, and has since 2016. She is a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, the Veterinary Cannabis Association and has trained hundreds medical doctors and veterinarians about the therapeutic uses of medical cannabis on animals. Visit www.angelaardolino.com for more information.