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Stress: Friend or Foe in the Horse and the Impact on Health and Soundness

Stress.  It’s a part of life and ever more present in our human lives in the past couple of decades.  Is it a part of our equine companion’s lives?  Absolutely.  On more levels than you care to know or realize.  The stress response in the horse is not much different than in you and I, and can  either be beneficial or damaging to health, soundness, and recovery.  Curbing that process, on what ever level that you can, dramatically impacts those three aspects of health, soundness, and recovery.  The question is whether if you recognize that the process exists, that it is truly playing a role, and then decide to do something about it.

The Horse and Stress
The Horse and Stress

Weather, feed changes, injuries, body condition, foot health, training, transportation, herd dynamics, and environmental factors all can create a stress response in your horse.  It’s not a wonder that you see more horses contract influenza, herpes, or other infectious diseases when housed tightly at a racetrack, competition barn, or during transportation.  It also should come as no surprise that stress during these types of conditions also contributes immensely to the development of gastric ulcers.  Stress can make them a little crazy, just like you and I, but it can dramatically impact their health and even healing.

You might find yourself battling the recovery of an injury in your equine companion, doing everything right medicinally, but recovery seems to come and go often over months or even years.  This may be a tendon injury that you are attempting to rehabilitate with stall rest, or maybe a battle with ongoing laminitis in an overweight horse kept on a dry lot with restricted feed.

There are many factors connected with overall health, mental function, injury, and full recovery, with stress being right at the top of that list!

The Stress Response; Friend or Foe

The natural stress response is very closely linked to the concept or process of inflammation.  Just as in the case of inflammation, we have two types; acute and chronic.  And just like with inflammation, the acute process is a good thing and needed for survival.  The chronic stress process is damaging to the body on many levels, and can kill the healthiest of horses or people.  During a stress response, there is a release of many hormones, chemicals, and cellular signaling events that create physiological changes in the body.  Two hormones that are released include cortisol and epinephrine.  These are beneficial in the short term, but not in the long term.

In order to have a stress response in the body, you must have a stressor.  That stressor is an event that takes place to the horse’s body which creates a challenge.  In short term challenges, such as when a horse just begins to enter training or is introduced to a new herd, this stressor challenges the body to overcome, become stronger, and adapt.  If the event is successful, that horse will adapt.  Muscles become stronger.  The circulation is enhanced.  Mental acuity is increased and maybe they became stronger overall, more experienced, even in the case of a new herd.  This acute stress response even applies to a horse going through rehabilitation for an injury or other condition.  If a tendon has been damaged, they must relearn to use that structure, go through some pain, to which they will hopefully adapt.  If you choose to go barefoot in a horse that has been shod for years, there will likewise be a period of adaptation, stress, which they will hopefully adapt to over time.  As they adapt, if all pieces of the puzzle are in place, the body structures will become stronger, and able to withstand greater forces as an end result.

In the chronic stages of stress, the horse’s body can be damaged.  The stress response is meant to be a short term situation, but when the stressor continues, day after day, month after month, severe problems can develop.  This occurs in the horse that is stall bound at the race track or training facility for 22 hours per day.  This happens in a laminitic or metabolic horse kept on a dry lot with reduced quality feed intake, away from their companions with little exercise.  This happens to some horses during constant training, competition, and transportation.  This also happens to the horse that has poorly cared for feet that are out of balance, and constantly inflicting pain with each step or stride.  This may also happen to a horse that is on constant medications for various conditions, due to their presence often creating a challenge for the horse physiologically, and also their influence on other organ systems.

The hormones released during a stress response are not much different whether if the situation is acute or chronic.  In the short term, those hormones have a purpose and create change in the body.  They elevate the heart rate, blood pressure, and circulation.  They alter the immune function, often lowering it.  They make the mind more alert, overly responsive at times.  They also alter gastrointestinal function and digestion.  All of these events are needed in the short term, to escape from a lion or other threat, or to aid in tissue enhancement, but when the process continues day in and day out, problems develop.

It’s all stress.  The question is what do you do about it?

You can’t avoid stress in your horse’s life, but you can alter some of the stressors and how the body responds.  Looking at all of the ways that stress enters a horse’s life, it is not a wonder that we have the large number of health conditions that we do.  Many owners will refuse to acknowledge that stress is a factor, to which I reply, just sit back and watch your horseIt’s self evident.

How do we know this?  Easy.  Understand the process, know that it is exists, and see how it plays a role in their health, soundness and recovery.

Many owners have horses that develop loose stools during competition, training, or competition which is brushed off to just being ‘them’.  True on some level, but the loose stools are a result of stress and the impact on the motility of the digestive tract.  Then you have the large numbers of horses that are stall bound, competing, or recovering from an injury that are diagnosed with stomach ulcers, then placed on medications to alleviate the clinical signs.  Then you have a metabolic horse with laminitis that continues to demonstrate coffin bone rotation, laminar separation, and overall poor body condition and mentation. All stress related!

That stress response can directly impair tissue regeneration and overall health.  Cortisol, being one main player, in the long term is a catabolic steroid, which means it is damaging to normal tissue.  This is not just muscle, tendons, and hoof tissue, but also the digestive tract and the stomach, not to mention the mind.  Circulation patterns are also disrupted during a stress response, pushing blood to the more vital organs that are needed to escape a threatening situation.  The immune response is often impaired as well, which opens the door for infections and poor healing. Gastrointestinal health is compromised, ulcers develop, digestion is impaired, and the microbiome is disturbed.  This means that the food you feed your horse may not be utilized properly, no matter how much added vitamins or minerals that you add.  All of these then impairs tissue healing from tendons, to muscles, to the hoof.

Now that you can hopefully see the problem, or one of many problems, let’s look at solutions for better management.

Managing Stress and Altering Pathways in the Horse

Stress is a constant, but you do have options when it comes to dealing with the effects.  One major thing you can do is to reduce the stressors.

  • Exercise:  If a horse is stall bound, get them out, allow them pasture time with herd mates and to lie in the sun if desired.  If the horse cannot go to full turnout, then hand walk and graze them at the very least. Not just once a week, but each day or twice daily.  If they are pasture bound, sitting idle, then create an exercise program that is to be used several times a week.  Whether if that is ground work, saddle work, or creating new obstacles to jump over, walk through, or just experience.  Keep in mind that sitting idle on a pasture or paddock creates just as much stress as being in full competition.  It’s how the mind and body reacts to it.
  • Body Condition: This is an important one and can create stress one way or the other.  Try to keep a mid-range body condition in your horse.  Too fit and lean can create negative stress patterns, just as equally can an over-weight body condition.  A horse that constantly trains, without rest, and a low body fat, is just as much at risk as the obese metabolic horse.  If you are training your horse, keep this in mind, monitor the diet and body condition, plus allow time off.  If you are battling laminitis, insulin resistance, or Cushing’s disease in your horse, realize that their body condition is influencing matters.  Also realize that if you put that overweight horse on a ‘starvation’ diet, just because they loose weight does not equate to a healthier condition.  Many factors that play into health.
  • Herd Inter-Play:  Here again is an important factor.  Horses are herd animals and thus do enjoy having a buddy to play with, graze with, and even talk over the day’s events with at the water cooler.  They don’t do well in isolation.  Allowing time out on pasture with another mate can make all of the difference, even if they do get into some spitting matches.  That is par for the course and far better to have a happier and mentally healthy horse, even if there are some cuts and scrapes.
  • Diet and Nutrition:  Monitor their diet and make sure they are receiving adequate nutrition and calories for their body condition and physiological needs.  You don’t want them too thin or too fat. If you find yourself with a harder keeper, there is likely a reason and stress is a factor, increasing metabolic rates and calorie burn.  Increasing calories can be a big help to some, but this may just be one part of the equation.  Take a look at the diet, especially if you are continually dealing with issues.  Are you feeding commercial, processed feeds?  If so, is this a factor.  Are you using whole foods and high quality hay, or are you trying to supplement your way out of a good quality base nutrition program? The diet can create stress in the the body, if not appropriate.  The diet can also encourage tissue repair and make cells more resistant to the impact of stress.  The choice is yours.
  • Hoof Health:  This is a big one for me as the feet impact the entire horse.  So many owners struggle with hoof health, but only a handful actually realize it is a problem.  Take a good look at your horse’s feet.  Are they healthy looking, solid and sturdy, or do they have cracks, flares, white line disease, thrush, and a chalky sole?  Can you even see the sole in your horse or is it covered by pads?  What happens if your horse does not have shoes on?  Can they walk soundly on concrete without their shoes?  Their feet are just as important as ours, when it comes to overall body health.  If their feet hurt, the body hurts.  When there is pain, there is stress.  If the pain is continual, then the stress is continual.  Hoof health and balance should be paramount to any program, but sadly a high percentage of even high level competition horses suffer the ill fates of poor hoof condition. Make it a priority, but realize that nutrition and supplementation are only one contributor.  Stress is another, as is proper farrier care at the root.
  • Pain Management:  This is also a critical contributor and many horses deal with this on some level.  Maybe they are recovering from a surgery, injury, or just have feet problems.  Pain, if present, creates stress.  If you create stress, you create more inflammation.  Create more inflammation and more pain is present, as is more stress.  It is a vicious cycle of events and it needs to be broken on some level if at all possible.  This does not mean more drugs  or more medications. If you do this, you will quickly find that organs become compromised, ulcers develop, and maybe the kidneys or liver begin to fail.  You need to look at the entire situation, reduce contributors if possible, allow for time and healing, but support it through proper diet and targeted supplementation.
  • Adaptogens:  Given that stress is going to be a constant factor for many horses, just as it is with us, you can’t alter everything.  Even if you could just put your horse on pasture 24/7, this may equate to stress reduction on one end, but stress production on another.  There is no ideal situation, aside from mimicking the life of a wild mustang.  Through domestication of the horse, we as a whole have created stress in their lives.  If it is ever present, then maybe we can modify it’s influence on the body, manage cellular pathways to some extent.  Adaptogens are one option that many horses benefit from.  These are herbs and foods that are shown in research, and used in non-traditional medicine for eons, to benefit the body through rejuvenation and mitigation of stress pathways. They can aid in balancing inflammation, lower cortisol levels, reduce blood pressures, balance out circulation patterns, harmonize the gastrointestinal tract and digestion, and negate the harmful cellular effects.  There are numerous adaptogens, and many we strive to take advantage of in our Cur-OST formulas for horses.  These include protein, Glutamine, Curcumin, Ashwaghanda, Eleutherococcus, Schisandra, Hawthorne, and many, many others.  All of these herbs can help directly or indirectly to balance the HPA (hypothalamus-adrenal-pituitary) axis, provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support, and nutritional value for cellular health and recovery.

Creating Solutions to Aid in Recovery

Once you realize that the stress response is ongoing and likely a major player in your horse’s health and soundness, then you can put options into play to assist with recovery.  If you can balance or support that stress response, then often the horse begins to improve clinically.  This is due to the stress response impacting many pathways, which often creates a vicious cycle of event.  Break that cycle and open the door for recovery and healing.

Many of our Cur-OST formulas indirectly or directly support the stress response through the use of adaptogens and nutritional herbs.  The two primary formulas that directly impact the stress response are:

  1. Cur-OST EQ Adapt & Calm – utilizing Ashwaghanda in a 4:1 extract to help balance the stress cycle.
  2. Cur-OST EQ Adapt & Recover – utilizing standardized extracts of Ashwaghanda 1.5%, Eleutherococcus 0.8%, Hawthorne, Schisandra, and Pomegranate.  This formula helps to promote a healthy stress response from multiple perspectives, while also supporting healthy circulation and antioxidant support for cellular health.

Stress is a powerful thing and can be either friend or foe, dependent on the situation and duration of time for the horse.  Realizing that likely it plays a role in most equine conditions, it just makes sense to try to manage it more completely to aid overall recovery and health.

The stress response is one component that is often neglected in most therapy programs, but with the right approach, modulation of that response can make all of the difference. 


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN

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