How to deal with your horse’s anxiety during competitions ?

As for humans, anxiety may affect certain horses and can generate consequences on the horse’s physical, emotional and physiological condition. In this article, we will explain how you can spot signs of anxiety on your horse and how to deal with your horse’s anxiety when such signs appear during competition. Eventually, we will explain how the use of Seaver connected devices can help detect and measure the stress level of the horse.

cheval avant compétition

What are the effects of stress over the horse’s health and performance?

On a competition horse, anxiety and fear can have an immediate influence on the performance; reducing the ability to focus and triggering some unusual muscle tightening that get the horse harder to ride for the rider and eventually reduce the performance.

Stress can be necessary when providing some good adrenaline for the horse or the rider. The horse is so said to be « alert », his senses are deepened and he is paying a great attention to the new environment in which he has to work and compete.

However, when the stress level is too high or when the horse gets too sensitive to external factors, stress turns into some negative and detrimental emotion that needs to be detected and cared for.

When a horse is feeling anxious on a regular basis and over relatively long periods of time (hours, days…), he is very likely to develop signs of ulcers, loss of weight or divers tics. Such disorders take various shapes but they all have immediate and long-term consequences on the horse’s physical condition.

How to detect anxiety on your horse?

Measuring the stress level of a human athlete is not something easy. However, men and women have the ability of analyzing and expressing their emotions. Anxiety is not easily measurable on a human body but it is even more complicated to do so on a horse.

  • The horse’s cortisol level is a useful indicator to identify stress

Researches have shown a link between the horse’s cortisol level and the horse’s anxiety.

Faecal and plasma cortisol concentrations turned out to be indicators of the measurement of equine unease and well-being.

Measuring cortisol in a horse’s saliva or by taking a sample of a horse’s blood allow comparably accurate results to identify stress and serves as a useful tool for improving equine welfare.

Such method has numerous constraints (availability, shipment of the sample, time required to know the results etc) and may also cost a great deal of money.

  • Signs of stress in horses

Other signs can help you to read your horse’s emotional condition to identify anxiety, fear, stress or discomfort.

Vices such as weaving, cribbing, wood chewing, wall kicking and fence walking are all signs of stress. Unusual sweat or decrease in appetite is another indicators of the horse’s stress level.

The increase of the horse’s heart pace is also a factor reflecting the horse's anxiety and is something you can easily check. When a horse becomes stressed, their pulse and respiration rates can increase, sometimes drastically : when the intensity of the work required does not increase (the pace is maintained and no special effort is required) and a peak is noticed, a sudden and significant increase, this peak shows a stressful event.

What do I do the days before the competition?

To reduce the feeling of discomfort or anxiety in your horse, you must have him get used to all external elements he will be confronted to the D-day. Minimizing changes to your horse’s environment as far as possible will also help, and this includes changes to their routine.

For starters, you may for instance accustom your horse to travel in the lorry or trailer on a regular basis for short and comfortable journeys. You can decide to drive your horse to a new trail path a couple of miles far from the barn, to drive him to another field or simply go to train at another barn for once. This way, your horse will get used to travel to a pleasant destination: going on a hack, enjoying some time in the field, traveling back home and get some carrots…

In a very similar way, music, noise or colorful banners all are new elements unusual and potentially scary to your horse.

If you get the chance, do not hesitate to drive your horse outside of the usual facilities to progressively habituate him to new noisier and more animated environments, than what he knows.

The D-day – dealing with your horse’s anxiety at shows

  • The rider has a role to play

The attitude of the rider is a key element in reducing the horse’s stress level during competition.

The rider must feel and act as usual in order to reassure his horse. An anxious rider turns out to be a stress catalyst for his mount

  • Using complementary food to help your horse relax at the show

Some complementary food is especially formulated to help the horse to stay focused without altering his physical and athletic abilities. They are usually made of a mix of plants specially chosen for their calming and relaxing properties.

  • Using Seaver connected devices to detect your horse’s stress peaks

    Thanks to their dual electrodes, Seaver connected devices give you live information on your horse’s heart rate. You can check the variation of the heart pace of your horse during the warm-up at regular intervals on your Seaver mobile app.

To be able to interpret the increases and decreases of your horse’s heart pace, it's important to know first his basic heart pace at rest.

On the chart of the heart rate above obtained with our Seaver girth, we notice at the very beginning of the warm-up (around 2'00) an unusual peak while the mare is walking, at a slow pace. Her heart rate initially around 100 bpm rises rapidly to 150 bpm and then goes down again. This peak marks a stressful event for the mare; here a motorcycle passing at high speed a few meters from the riding arena.

When the horse gets stressed by some stimuli, his heart rate increases. You must take some break from the work and have him breathe and walk for a minute. You can also talk to him with a low voice to remind him he can trust you and there is no danger to be afraid of.

Being able to detect anxiety in your horse is a significant tool to prevent from pathologies such as colics, loss of weight etc.

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