So, you’re going to a competition (yay!) and you’ve trained hard, groomed your horse and cleaned your tack. You must be completely prepared... right?
Well maybe, but have you thought about how your horse will behave when he’s out? Have you done any floating practice recently? Are you taking enough hay to keep him occupied when you aren’t competing? Has he ever even eaten out of a hay net before?
Now, we don’t want to stress you out. In fact we want to reduce stress! In particular, the stress your horse may experience whilst out and about.
Here are our five top tips to help reduce your horse’s anxiety whilst out at a competition:
1. Understand the link between gut health, gut bacteria and behaviour
Does your horse go a bit “funny” whilst out at a show? Maybe he gets a bit spooky or rushes at jumps when he would perform perfectly at home? Does he drink less? Have runny manure? These are all indicators of stress. But did you know that stress and behaviour have a direct link to gut health?
The good, fibre-fermenting bacteria in your horse’s gut create some incredible by-products, and included in these are B vitamins. These B vitamins (in particular, vitamin B1) produced by your horse’s gut, as well as any he receives from his feed, are known to aid in calm behaviour and can also reduce pain and inflammation.
On the other hand, the “bad”, starch-fermenting bacteria can have a negative effect on, and can contribute to, your horse’s stress. They produce a compound called Thiaminase that can actually destroy vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine), and if too many of these bad bacteria are present it can result in behavioural changes.
2. Keep the “good guys” in charge
We’ve spoken about how the good bacteria in your horse’s gut are the ones who positively influence behaviour, and that bad bacteria can cause stress and therefore negatively impact behaviour. But how do we keep the “good guys” in charge and in greater populations than the bad? The answer is simple: we need to feed them! And what is the food source for the good, fibre-fermenting bacteria (hint: it's in the name!)? Fibre!
Providing constant access to fibre sources such as hay and pasture will keep the good bacteria in abundance and the bad bacteria at bay. This can be done by providing your horse’s regular hay at all times (slow-feed hay nets are great for this), fencing off an area for your horse to graze and/or taking your horse for regular walks to graze. If you promote the right bacteria, this will help to create the behaviour you want along with so many other valuable by-products.
3. Reduce “Travel Sickness”
Transportation is one of the leading contributors to stress in horses, and 9 times out of 10 you are going to have to transport your horse to get to an event. This is fine, as many horses can handle transport quite well when prepared, but that is the key: they must beprepared! If you can, practice floating your horse before the competition and normalise it so that on the day it is not such a shock to your horse. Many horses are deemed “bad travellers” because they are simply not exposed to it regularly enough and become reactive due to stress.
4. When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail!
We can’t stress this enough: preparation is paramount to performance success! When taking your horse out of its regular environment, you must be constantly thinking about how you can make it as easy a transition as possible.
Stress can be caused by some things that we never would have thought of. Even giving your horse his hay in a slow feeder net on the day of competition when he hasn’t used one before may not seem like much, but it can actually be really frustrating for him and can lead to increased stress! Many horses are also out in a paddock for most of their lives, and suddenly being confined to a small space such as a tape yard or stable can be extremely stressful.
Small acts such as not buying hay at competitions and bringing your horse’s hay from home can have huge impacts. This in particular can have massive effects on the bacterial populations of your horse’s gut, as even though you may be feeding the same type of hay, it will be from an entirely different area and crop that your horse’s gut hasn’t yet encountered (= more stress!). The same goes for water, and many horses may even refuse to drink strange water when out at competitions which is potentially very dangerous.
5. Remember that horses might not always show stress
We know that horses have a flight response due to being a prey animal, but sometimes we forget the other things that come from being in this place on the food chain. In the wild, horses that are weak, ill or injured will try and disguise this from predators so that they don’t get targeted. So how does this relate to stress and anxiety, you might ask?
Many horses actually won’t show many, if any, outward signs of stress. They could have huge reactions such as bolting or shying in the middle of your test, or they could show smaller signs like eating more or their ears being more alert and active. Horses are also natural herd animals and, though your horse may not have severe “separation anxiety” symptoms (such as running around, pacing and calling out), being taken away from their normal herd will induce some form of stress.
6. Bonus point: 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.
Many horse owners do too much guessing when it comes to their horse’s feed, and using programs such as our very own FeedAssist (which is completely free) can take the guesswork out of it. Simple things such as providing enough fibre and different types of it, getting the vitamin and mineral content correct and avoiding “hot” feeds such as grains, can all contribute to not only a healthier gut, but also a happier, calmer horse even when out at competitions.
Use the stress dose of Digestive EQ leading up to and during the competitions.
Stress affects horses in many ways. They stop eating. They stop drinking. Muscles can fatigue quickly with dehydration and can result in reduced nutrients available to support energy production. Competition, strenuous work, transport, long days competing, extreme heat and humidity, extended times off feed or other major changes to your horse’s normal routine and illness or extended times off feed can compromise gut health.
Gut bacterial populations can shift. Muscles and organs can be damaged with higher rates of oxidative stress. Behaviour can 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.
Stress Paste is designed to specifically address each of these responses to stress and keep the horse eating and hydrated with well-functioning, well protected muscles.Stress Paste aims to support the gut so it and its bacteria can remain healthy during higher stress periods.