Just because your horse isn’t displaying anxious behaviour, it doesn’t mean they’re not stressed.
As a flight animal, horses are programmed to avoid showing their weaknesses to potential predators. This means gut stress could be happening on the inside, but you mightn’t even realise, until it’s too late.
Acute stress can affect horses in many ways. They stop eating. They stop drinking. Their muscles can fatigue quickly with dehydration, which results in reduced nutrients available to support energy production.
Competitions, strenuous work, transport, illness, long days competing, extreme heat and humidity, extended times off feed or other major changes to your horse's normal routine can compromise gut health and cause internal stress.
This stress means gut bacterial populations can shift. Muscles and organs can be damaged by higher rates of oxidative stress. This can lead to health challenges like colic and laminitis, tying up, skin conditions and performance problems.
Their behaviour may become anxious and highly strung, and this behaviour then starts the stress cascade all over again. They stop eating. They stop drinking… and so it goes.
So managing the stressors your horse is exposed to is really important.
Healthy gut bacteria create the by-products that contribute to a healthy horse that is not only calm and trainable and healthy on the outside but also healthy on the inside.
Some simple tips for managing stress include:
1. Provide access to plenty of forage
Providing constant access to fibre sources such as hay and pasture will help keep the good bacteria in abundance and the bad bacteria at bay. It also satisfies your horse's need for mental stimulation which is achieved with constant access to hay or pasture. If horses need to be on a restricted amount of hay, using slow feeder hay nets to draw out the time they spend eating is recommended.
2. Use high fibre low starch feeds
If your horse needs hard feed to meet their calorie requirement, use feeds low in sugar and starch where possible or use limited amounts of grain based feed in your horse's diet. The aim is to prevent undigested starch and sugars entering the hindgut where they are fermented by the bad bacteria. This process upsets the balance of microbial populations, disrupting the work of the good microbes.
3. Ensure your horse has a balanced diet
A balanced diet can work wonders! This may sound like a very basic point, but meeting your horse’s energy, vitamin and mineral requirements is crucial to a healthy gut, and will therefore aid in reducing your horse’s stress. Deficiencies in vitamin B1 (thiamine) and magnesium can have severe impacts on your horse’s behaviour and exceeding energy requirements can result in hot-headed and/or spooky behaviour.
4. Make any feed changes slowly
Sudden changes to diet can easily disrupt the balance of bacteria in your horse’s gut which can create some of the problems mentioned above. High sugar/starch feeds should be gradually reduced to ensure a steady shift of the microbial populations.
5. Support the gut in times of illness
When needing to use medications due to illness, such as antibiotics, support your horse’s gut with supplements and a fibre based diet.
6. Allow your horse to have a paddock buddy if possible
Especially one with a healthy gut. This will give your horse the opportunity to collect fungi that will have been scattered around the paddock. They may even eat the manure from a healthy horse to naturally repopulate their own gut with good bacteria. Strange but true!
If your horse is going to be facing a change in their routine due to transport, extreme heat or a change in their environment, be proactive in how you support them. Remember, even if they don’t appear ‘stressed’, their internal systems might still be suffering.