Stress: A Whole System Illness

Explore the hidden stressors affecting your horse this winter and learn how to provide the best care. Discover the impact of cold weather, disrupted routines, and physical strain on your equine friend. Find out what stresses horses and ways to reduce their discomfort, ensuring their well-being throughout the season.

As November comes around and we all start getting into the swing of the Holidays, we all know the feeling of stress that starts to set in. While our own personal stress levels are on the rise many of us think that our horses stress levels are very low as many of us take a break from showing. While a busy show schedule is known by many to be stressful on our horses, their winter break may not be as relaxing as we might think.

Understanding Stress

Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Moving around a lot and competing is very demanding on the body making a straight line to stress related concerns in our athletes. However, mental and/or emotional strain can continue after the show season if there are lingering physical discomforts from competing leaving your horse with adverse conditions to combat. This can be further extenuated with adverse weather conditions adding to physical discomforts. Cold rains can easily chill your horse and with grass no longer growing well in the field it can be difficult to keep a good healthy matt of buffering forage in the belly. As icy weather moves in, we also often need to keep our horses inside more giving them less time to move around and stretch creating soreness/stiffness issues that can add to an already stressed system. Showing in the winter months are more stressful for our athletes due to needing to battle the weather on top of the normal stresses associated with disrupted routines and physical strain, but even a winter off can be stressful depending on different types of housing available for our horses.

What Does Stress Due to the Body?:

  • Stress leads to a wide range of issues within the body system, but probably the most notable include:
    • Slowing/Stopping the body’s ability to heal
    • Anxiety
    • Decreased Performance
    • Weight Loss

What do Horses Find Stressful?

Horses are naturally herd animals physically designed to be eating almost constantly and moving regularly at slow speeds with moments of faster speeds. In my experience the most common stressors I find horses facing include:

  • Constant Change of Pasture Mates: All herds establish a hierarchy of who is in charge and who is following. At busy stables a constant flux of new horses coming and/or going makes the herd reestablish all their dynamics repeatedly. This leads to a lack of stability and can be very stressful for each individual horse as they are never able to settle into their role within an established herd because the herd is never truly established.
  • Cold Stress: Anatomically horses are designed to be cold resistant, although this does vary by breed as to how tolerant an individual is. A thick winter coat combined with a hindgut fermentation acting like a large internal furnace keep most of our equines very happily warm even in quite cold temperatures. This system fails when your horse gets wet or we shave off their winter coats to allow for more intense exercise in the winter time. If you remove your horse’s main defense against the weather, you need to take over the role of their coat by providing appropriately sized blankets. An adequate shelter that will allow your horses to get out of the we cold is also essential to allow them to stay warm. Cold stressed horses have a very hard time maintaining their weight and are quite prone to becoming ill.
  • Food Stress: This is a common occurrence in Ohio winters in which our natural forages stop growing. Even if your horse is kept out on pasture year-round, if the grass stops growing or your pastures are overgrazed it is common for them to run out of food and have large swaths of time with nothing in their stomachs. As horses spend more time stalled as well this is again a common issue with horses eating their provided hay and grain quickly leaving them with nothing to eat all night long until breakfast the next day.
  • Physical Pain: Any bodily discomfort will create stress on the entire system. It has been proven multiple times over that administering pain medications when healing from an injury helps to speed the healing process because it reduces the stress on the overall system allowing the body to mend itself more easily. Injuries sustained regardless of the time of year should be addressed fully or they may go from being an acute injury to a chronic condition now involving more than one system of the body.

Ways to Reduce Stress

There are many things we can do to help reduce our horse’s stress this winter. Some of these include, but are not limited to:

  • Establish a stable winter herd and avoid removing and introducing horses to as little as humanly possible
  • A wide variety of blankets that are suitable for many different temperatures are ideal to have in your tack trunk. As the weather in Ohio can be frigid at night, but warm in the day it is important to be able to swap our blankets to keep your horse comfortable-much the way we swap out coats. It is also important to have back ups for when your horse may get wet turning your blankets from warming elements to chilling elements.
  • Free choice hay- This is most easily accomplished using a feeder to reduce waste such as a slow feed hay net in the stall and/or a collapsing round bale feeder out in the field
  • Treating physical discomforts that may be following us from coming off a busy show season is important to keep your horse from developing new conditions, such as ulcers, from prolonged discomfort. Pain medications and other treatments are just as important in the winter as they are in the summer.

When to Call the Veterinarian:

If your horse seems to be anything other than fat and happy this winter, you may want to have them looked at sooner than later. Small problems can easily turn to big problems quickly when environmental stresses get combined with physical stresses.

Our Commitment to You

At Carrollton Equine, we believe in providing a balanced, whole horse approach taking into consideration not only physical ailments, but potentially mental stresses your horse may be experiencing. As our athletic partners it is important for them to be in peak condition both mentally and physically which can only be accomplished when we are able to address all different types of stressors to the body.

Resources for Pet Owners

For additional discussions about stress in horses I encourage you to check out: Dr. Mark Russell’s paper on recognizing stress in horses available here:

In Conclusion

As we spend more time at home this holiday season snuggled up next to family it is important to remember our four-legged partners out in the barn. A regular check on the weather conditions that change constantly to make sure we have them supported the best we can is crucial this winter season. A good, comfy winter will set us up for a really good time this spring.


About The Author

Nicole Kelleher

DVM, CVA, VSMT  |  Owner & Equine Veterinarian

Nicole graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. Since then she has continued to further her education by becoming a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist graduating from the Chi Institute in 2017. She then attended the Healing Oasis school to graduate with her degree in Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (VSMT) in 2021. Dr. Kelleher regularly sees clients utilizing Shenanigans Stables to perform lameness evaluations and treat patients with both acupuncture and VSMT allowing for an integrative approach to the equine athlete.

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