Horses & Competition Stress

Stress & Competition

Ever wondered what happens to the horse during periods of stress? Different environmental conditions can affect the level of stress a horses experiences. One example of these environmental conditions is competition/competing.


Stress is a state of tension or strain produced by physical or psychological forces that disturb function, and initiate the fight or flight response.  Anxiety is the form of stress that you and your horse will suffer from in the competition environment. This unpleasant emotional state is a short term learned response to previous experiences in the competition environment or in the horse life; the anxiety is attached to the circumstances associated with that event.  In the future similar circumstances can trigger the stress response.

Stressors are the sources of stress that trigger this response.  For horses these can be many things such as environment, noise, temperature, overcrowding, type of stabling, demands of the work they are being asked to perform, increases in workload, transportation, illness, pain, life events (weaning, backing, breaking, castration etc.).  So many things in every day life can be stressful for our horses’ consequently even simple changes of lifestyle can cause anxiety until it becomes everyday routine.  The stress thresh-hold varies from animal to animal depending on their temperament, and experiences.


What actually happens within the horses nervous system



When a horse is stressed what behaviours are you likely to see:

  • Fear or pain – trembling, sweating, hiding, trying to make itself look smaller, trying to escape, frenzied, aggressive. Studies have shown relationships between stress and illness,  between stress and aggression, and between stress and accidental injury.
  • Frustration or displacement – if a horse is prevented from doing a behaviour it is used to doing it may substitute it for another behaviour such as cribbing or weaving.
  • Adaptation – the horse learns to cope with the condition and accept the situation.
  • Learned helplessness – the horse learns that the stress is unavoidable and ceases to make appropriate behavioural responses, showing decreased responsiveness and lack of interest.


Stressors within the competition environment

  • Heat Stress – when body temperature goes above 150of, the body can not efficiently cool itself. Typically caused by over exertion when weather conditions have over come the horses ability to dissipate heat and have interfered with fluid and electrolyte levels
  • Travel Stress – upsets balance of every day routine such as eating and sleeping. Stressors include confinement, movement, lack of previous experience noise, gases, changes in temperature and humidity.  Can cause colic, increased heart rate, suppressed immune system, elevated white blood cell count, weight loss and reactivation of pre-existing respiratory disease
  • Competing – anxiety as everything is strange: environment, horses, crowds, new brightly coloured jumps, collecting ring
  • Anticipation – when the horse knows certain routines are only performed when going to a competitions. If something is changed within this the horse will not know what to expect causing anxiety and agitation
  • Dehydration
    • mild – electrolytes or body salts in the blood stream stimulate thirst
    • progressively – excessive loss of electrolytes stimulus to trigger thirst is eliminated and by not drinking the dehydration worsens
    • severe – serious electrolyte imbalance requiring iv fluids and electrolyte therapy
  • Fatigue
    • the body’s alarm system to alert you to the beginning of failure to prevent serious metabolic problems
    • signs: slow heart rate and respiratory rate recovery, dehydration, pale dry mucus membranes, prolonged capillary refill time, lack of appetite, thirst and interest, muscle tremors, twitching, thumps (diaphragm contacts at same time as heart beat).
  • Illness & injury
    • heat pain and swelling may occur at the time of competition or not until late on
    • behaviours change: off food, depressed, agitated, anxious, obvious pain or discomfort.


General guidelines for minimising competition environment stress


  • allow rest breaks on long journeys
  • reduce energy feeds and give easily digestible dust free feeds
  • ensure good travelling conditions – ventilation, rugs, boots/bandages
  • water, electrolytes, companion?

Warm up & cool down:

  • warm up and cool down properly
  • use rest breaks between classes sensibly
  • keep the horse warm or cool depending on weather


  • try to keep routine as close to the same as home as possible


  • keep the same feed ration as at home
  • pack enough hay and feed to last the duration
  • Use a gut balancer if required


  • don’t work the horse to the point of exhaustion
  • if shows signs of fatigue retire from the competition


  • do not allow your horse to become dehydrated
  • check for signs regularly


  • allow the horse time to relax – graze in hand etc.
  • relaxation exercises – your animal physical therapist can show you how


  • on a hot day prevent heat stress by wetting neck chests and forelegs, before, during and after classes


  • cool down correctly
  • check the horse thoroughly for injury, stiffness, strain, pain, illness – your physical therapist can show you how
  • book an equine sports massage session for the following day to aid recovery as this will help to restore and strengthen the muscle, prevent stiffness, help remove excess lactic acid and relax the horse after a stressful day
  • promote speedy recovery with electrolytes & nutritional feed stuffs that are easily digestible and palatable


Signs of severe stress – CALL THE VET!

  • Persistent heart rate elevation
  • Persistent respiratory rate elevation – panting
  • Prolonged increase in temperature
  • Slow recovery rate
  • Profuse sweating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dry, pale mucus membranes
  • Prolonged capillary refill time
  • Lack of intestinal sounds
  • Lack of skin elasticity – recoil test
  • Abnormal behaviour
  • Shaking

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