Spooks Show Time & Ricky Nicolazzi • Photo by Kristin Pitzer

Five Things About Stress in Performance Horses

Stress is a fact of life for all creatures, and its effect on humans is well-documented. Stress can also be particularly detrimental in performance horses, as those types of equines are often exposed to many things pasture horses will never encounter. The physical and mental effects of stress are often career-enders if not properly dealt with.

Quarter Horse News spoke with Brad Barkemeyer, a reined cow horse EquiStat earner of $263,000-plus, and Ricky Nicolazzi, who has EquiStat earnings of more than $414,000 in the reining and reined cow horse pens, to learn more about how stress effects Western performance horses and what you as a rider can do about it.

What Can Excessive Stress Cause?

Stress can manifest itself in many ways in the horse, from physical to mental symptoms. A stressed out horse might go off its feed, causing it to drop weight. It can also become more susceptible to illnesses and develop compulsive behaviors. You might notice wasted movement, like pawing or not standing quietly, and the horse may act jumpy and spook easily, as though it is in danger.

horses with heads hanging over stalls

“Physically, their vitals change so that their heart rate goes up, respiratory rate goes up and digestive system gets interrupted, and that can lead to ulcers in the digestive system or even to colic,” Barkemeyer said. “There’s also mental stress. When they’re highly-trained performance animals, they need to be physically fit and very mentally focused. Stress can distract them and cause them to lose their focus, which ultimately comes out so they’re not performing to their best ability.”

What Are Common Stressors?

Anything that disrupts a horse’s normal schedule will cause it some matter of anxiety. Stressful stimuli common to performance horses include trailering for long periods of time, being separated from their buddies and exposure to new environments on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for horses that are competing to also feel the nerves of their riders when the pressure is on at an event.

Metallic Rays & Ricky Nicolazzi • Photo by Primo Morales

“Anyone who wants to win is going to stress his horses a little bit because it’s just the environment and the pressure that we have to win,” Nicolazzi said. “The level is so high on every single level. If you care about the show, then you are somebody who carries stress. It’s pretty simple.”

Some horses handle stress better than others depending on their personality and genetic makeup, but plenty of anxious horses have still had successful careers. The key is learning what stressors trigger them and then training them to ignore those triggers in a safe environment.

How Can You Prevent Stress Before It Happens?

The best way to help an anxious horse overcome his stressors is to acclimate him to them beforehand. For example, if your horse will be spending a lot of time on the road in the future, get him used to horse show behaviors at home before you ever load him onto your rig.

“I like to expose my horses to all of those stimuli,” Barkemeyer said. “Tie them up by themselves where they can’t see another horse. Let them be in a big open pen on their own. Put them in a box stall that’s enclosed. Have them experience those stimuli at home, in their comfortable area, and then when new scenarios like that are introduced, it won’t be as traumatic.”

Nicolazzi follows this method, too. When teaching young horses how to haul, for instance, he simulates how they will ride in a trailer by tying them close to each other down a fence. Then, when the horses are comfortable, he’ll take them on a short ride in the trailer at least once before he ever hauls them a long distance.

My Seasoned Horse Is Acting Anxious — Should I Panic?

Even veteran show horses can experience bouts of anxiety in unfamiliar places. In those cases, there are some steps you can take to help them settle in, Nicolazzi said. The first thing he does is longe the horse for 30 minutes to let it “get the nerves out.”

“Then I’ll bathe him and put him back in the stall to see if he’s better,” Nicolazzi said. “Normally when they first get to a place, it is just because they’re fresh, the vibe is up, and they’re not settled in yet. The first thing I’ll do is go move them around, just to make sure to take the edge off the horse.”

If the horse continues to whinny, paw, or carry on, try to not reward that behavior by taking them out of the stall. Otherwise, they will learn that raising a fuss will reward them with attention and a change of scenery.

“You have to kind of let them live through some of that stuff,” Barkemeyer said. “Pay attention to the vitals, obviously — make sure they’re eating and drinking, which it’s going to be a little bit disrupted at the beginning. But if you’re consistent, they typically will adapt to their environment.”

Are There Supplements That Can Help?

Sometimes it helps to plan ahead if you know you’re going to be introducing your horse to a new and challenging situation. In those cases, a supplement geared toward helping horses relax could be beneficial.

Both Barkemeyer and Nicolazzi use Confidence EQ, a pheromone gel that replicates the equine appeasing pheromone mares release toward foals, which provides reassurance and emotional stabilization while signifying a safe environment. The gel is applied to the horse’s nostrils 30 minutes before he or she is exposed to a stressful situation.

“I’ve seen good results with it,” Nicolazzi said. “It takes a little bit of the edge off, but it doesn’t take anything from their feet, so they still perform very good.”

“I would say on a higher percentage of horses, it gives them a more relaxed state of mind,” Barkemeyer added. “If you can give it before they’re upset, it’s more effective. It reduces the amount of time it would take for them to adapt to the new stimulus.” There are many products out there that are touted to calm equine stress. Always do your research beforehand to make sure whatever you try won’t interact with other supplements or medications, and if you show, double-check that the ingredients won’t get you in trouble on a drug test.