High Anxiety

By Laura Thill
May, 2016

Don’t let your equine customers stress out over their patients’ anxiety issues.


Equine anxiety is much more than a state of mind, particularly for your customers who must address their patients’ stress issues on a daily basis. Perhaps because of their strong survival instincts, horses are especially sensitive to sounds, movements and smells – even new behaviors on the part of their owners or groomers.

“Horses have extremely strong fight-or-flight responses,” says Jeff Hall, DVM, and senior veterinarian with the Zoetis technical services team. “They are creatures of habit.” A change in their environment, such as a new barn or stall, or being transported in a trailer, can trigger their anxiety, as can something as simple as a plastic bag blowing across their path or the smell of another animal, he points out. A change in handler can present a huge ordeal, he adds. “Horses become accustomed to their trainer, owner and groomer. Seeing someone new may make them anxious and afraid.”


Multiple situations can induce anxiety in a horse, says Megan Green, DVM, veterinary services manager, Merial. These include:

• Entering a strange place (e.g., an arena) or a dark area (e.g., a trailer). “Horses will often shy away and/or refuse to go into an arena, trailer, stall, etc., if they are scared, or they might even be barn- or arena-sour due to a previous encounter – often one that ended in a negative experience,” she says. 

• New or loud noises, such as announcements or music that is played over a loud speaker (especially at horse shows); tractors; rustling of leaves or plastic bags; firecrackers etc.

• New objects they encounter. (e.g., a vehicle, trailer, tractor, manure spreader, buildings, plastic bags, tents, standing water or any other unfamiliar object that is out of the horse’s normal routine).

• Other animals, such as birds, dogs or snakes.


“Having to make a physical jump or maneuver in an arena can surprise or agitate a horse,” she says. “Just being in a training or a heavy work situation can be a stressor for them.

“Horses, like people, are all different,” Green continues. “Some can be headstrong, and when things don’t go their way, they may become anxious. Other horses are people pleasers and become stressed when things don’t proceed as they expect them to.”


Reading the symptoms

Without meaning to do so, horse owners, trainers and handlers can actually add to their horse’s stress levels. “Most horse owners know and understand their horse very well,” says Hall. Still, it’s easy for them to unwittingly place their horse in a stress-inducing situation, he says. “It’s not uncommon for an owner to move his or her horse to a location where it may not be comfortable. There may be a strange light, sounds or shadows, which the owner doesn’t even notice. Or, the new space may be too confining.

“We love our horses, but can easily put too much pressure on them to perform,” he continues. “It may be that the jumps are higher than they are prepared to make.” Similarly, race and work/cattle horses can encounter a lot of stress, he says. “Even rodeo horses that must travel a lot can experience performance anxiety, much like people do.”

Not only might horse owners inadvertently place their horse in a stressful situation, “horses are very sensitive, and when they sense their owner is nervous they may feed off of that,” adds Green.

Fortunately, equine veterinarians generally are “very keen about reading behavior” in their patients, says Hall. “We have a good sense of their level of anxiety based on their behavior.” In addition, physical symptoms – increased heart rate, sweating and increased respiratory level to name a few – and the horse’s medical history help round out the diagnosis of anxiety, he adds.

“Horses also demonstrate stress and anxiety through behaviors, such as poor performance; restlessness; irritable behavior, such as pinning their ears; biting, weight loss; cribbing (sucking on wood); stall weaving; and intermittent colic,” says Green. “Sixty-six percent of performance horses suffer from equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), which is often caused by stress and anxiety. To determine if a horse is suffering from EGUS, veterinarians can diagnose the disease by using gastroscopy.”


Taking a complete medical history helps the veterinarians answer several questions, says Green, including:

• Has the horse experienced any lifestyle changes?

• Does the horse travel much? If so, is this new? How frequently?

• Does the horse compete? If so, how frequently?

• If the horse is a workhorse, how heavy is its schedule?

• Has the horse experienced a change in schedule? Has its schedule become too heavy?

• Has the owner noticed a change in the horse’s demeanor? Does the horse appear to be increasingly unhappy or irritable?


A proactive approach

Distributor sales reps can provide a service to their equine customers by reminding them to educate clients on how to minimize their horse’s stress and recognize symptoms of anxiety when they first appear. “Veterinarians should be proactive about educating their clients to utilize preventative measures to minimize stress in their horse’s life, especially when they are on the road and competing,” Green explains.

“There are many over-the-counter medications designed to reduce a horse’s anxiety, as well as mineral supplements, herbal components and vitamins,” says Hall. “But, OTC products are not always tested and not necessarily effective or even safe for the horse,” he says. “Veterinarians choose from a number of licensed medications that are safe and effective – the majority of which are designed to act within a few minutes and last up to 30 minutes or so. And, if used at the proper doses, these medications are very predictable and safe for the horse.”

That said, even the most diligent equine veterinarians often face obstacles to caring for their anxiety-burdened patients. For instance, tranquilizers, sedatives and pain medications – all of which can be safely prescribed by veterinarians – can cause the horse’s head to droop, and this may be alarming to clients, says Hall. “Equine veterinarians rely on these medications and must educate their clients on the value of each treatment, along with safety issues, and prepare them for what to expect when their horse receives the medication,” he explains. “Veterinarians want horse owners to understand that it’s not always realistic for the veterinarian to be able to correct the horse of its fear or anxiety in a 30-minute doctor visit, he adds. “Owners need to understand that these behaviors sometimes have taken years to develop and will take time to address.”

In addition to prescribing medications designed to reduce anxiety or ulcers, which may develop as a result, veterinarians should also educate clients on caring for their horse while on the road, Green says. Owners should condition their horse to travel, particularly if it never has left the farm before, she says. “Horse owners should teach their horses – especially their young horses – to load on and off the trailer, and then practice driving around for a couple of miles, rather than waiting until the day of departure,” she says. This will demonstrate to the horse that the trailer ride is safe and reduce the stress for both the owner and the horse.

While traveling and attending competitions, horse owners should try to keep their horse on a regular schedule as much as possible, Green says. “The food – and even the water – available at horse show facilities often tastes different to the horse than that provided at home,” she says. “This further stresses the horse, which may increase the likelihood of the horse refusing to eat or drink while on the road, and it could lead to further problems. If traveling for a long period of time, horse owners should bring food and water from home, and mix it in with the new food and water to help with the transition and make it taste more familiar. It’s a matter of being proactive, not reactive.”

“Preparation is everything for horses,” says Hall. “Horse owners need to put themselves in the horse’s place and ask, ‘What will scare the horse?’” Taking steps as simple as removing a flag from the horse’s path, or even taking the horse down a different path, can help alleviate its anxiety. “Not all horse owners are experienced, and their instincts may not be [on spot],” he says. “Equine veterinarians should advise their clients to seek help from experienced horse trainers, who can help them avoid dangerous situations.”

It can be difficult for veterinarians to impress on clients the importance of being proactive, as well as complying with drug regulations associated with horse shows and competitions, says Green. “This goes for any medication the horse may be taking,” she says. “Owners need to plan ahead. They can’t just take the horse off its medication when they get to the horse show!” When owners lack an understanding of potential stressors, and they don’t communicate well with their veterinarians, they may actually be adding to their horse’s stress, she points out.


Know the products

Distributor sales reps can provide a value-added service to their equine customers by providing top-notch solutions for treating their patients’ anxiety, as well as aids for engaging their clients. Whether new to the equine industry or a longtime consultant, the best place to start is to familiarize oneself with the products – including sedatives and tranquilizers – available on the market. “There are efficacy differences among these products, and they don’t necessarily all work the same,” says Hall. By discussing products with their manufacturer technical service partners, distributor sales reps can approach their veterinarian customers with a better understanding of how the drugs work. “It shouldn’t be the sales rep’s goal to tell their veterinarian customers which type of drug to use,” he adds. “But, medications may need to be used in combination with other drugs, or at a certain dose, in order to achieve the best response.” The more sales reps know about how their repertoire of products work, the more information they can share with their customers.


Green recommends that distributor sales reps ask their equine veterinarian customers several questions to get a sense for how well they are educating their clients on limiting their horse’s anxiety, as well as engaging them in the treatment plan:

• “Doctor, what type of information do you provide for your clients to educate them about equine anxiety?” (Merial offers educational videos designed to educate horse owners about how stress and anxiety can lead to ulcers or otherwise impact their horse’s health.)

• “Do you provide clients with a travel checklist (e.g., tips for loading/unloading onto the trailer, making practice runs, allowable dosages of medications to be taken at shows, proper amounts of food and water to bring from home, etc.) to help reduce the stress traveling might place on their horse?”

• “Do you provide your clients with travel packs to make their trip easier on their horse?”


Sales reps can provide a service by “making sure their equine veterinarian customers have educational materials on hand to share with their clients,” Green says.

 “The better horse owners understand equine anxiety, the more they can do to help prevent dangerous situations from arising,” adds Hall.

Topics: Equine


Subscribe to Email Updates