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STRESS IN HORSES
Presented by Stephen Ashdown
Stress is a natural response of the body to something that threatens it whether that threat is mental or a physical accident or a disease. When the body senses that something bad may happen to it, cells release chemicals that start to protect the body from what ‘might happen’. This threat to the body might be a sudden change in the weather, a new horse in the field that might cause a fight, some change to management regime or maybe the loss of a companion in the same field. Some of the chemicals that the body releases in such situations are natural steroids which calm damage in the body down whether that damage occurs in the mind or the muscles. Other chemicals start to prepare the body for taking evasive action i.e. running away quickly.
So we can see that stress is actually a natural state of the body. If we or our horses did not get worried or stressed about things to some degree we would be much more likely to get into trouble in difficult or dangerous situations. The trouble comes however when stress continues for long periods of time without us being able to get away from what is causing it. Then the natural chemicals in the body that are supposed to protect the body actually start having negative effects. The body steroid hormones start weakening the immune system, body chemicals make us ‘revved up’ in order to escape the stress and cannot do so and by products of all this chemical activity called ‘free radicals’ start damaging the cells and make us grow older more quickly. It is a bit like ‘revving up’ an engine for a long period without going anywhere. Of course it is not good for the engine after a while. Recent studies show that short periods of stress are actually good for the body because the healing process of the body afterwards gives it a lift. If a person has no occasional challenge to make them think more acutely the brain degenerates and becomes less able to function well.
So what does all this mean for horses? It means that if your horse is locked up in a stable for prolonged periods and does not like this it can get stressed and this damages its health. It means that horses that loose their companions and are then left by themselves get ill eventually. It means that if a horse is constantly worried about a heavy competition schedule and non-stop travelling it is likely to get ill relatively easily.
How do we prevent the longer type of stress causing damage to our horses? The key is of course good management and an understanding of how a horses mind works. For many people this is not natural and it is worth reading up on how horses behave in the wild and in domestication and trying to fit in more with what a horse is happy with. For example most people are well aware that horses like to be fed at regular times during the day and get stressed out if regimes are upset. If a horse never knows when its feed is coming it is a constant state of anxiety.
When a horse has been stressed for prolonged periods of time sometimes extra help is needed. Bad experiences can affect a horse strongly for the rest of his or her life - just like a person. In the same way a period of one month’s stress because of an inability to get on with another horse in the same field may take several weeks to get over after normality has returned and this is where herbs can fit in nicely.
Many herbs are great at tackling stress and help animals adapt to stressful situations. The most important of these are called ‘Adaptogens’ (help bodies adapt). Examples of such plants are Indian and Chinese ginsengs, Astragalus and even turmeric. Other plants have strong antioxidant properties which help get rid of toxic free radicals which are releases at times of stress. Most people think of different types of food, vitamins and minerals as being the only sources of antioxidants but many herbs are specifically more powerful than anything else at providing this form of protection.
So when horses and people are stressed the strategic use of herbal mixes to reduce stress can make an enormous difference. Rather than reaching for the diazepam a quick drink of a suitable herbal drink can get you back on the right track in an hour or two when otherwise you might be uptight for days. In the same way for horses the careful use of a good herb blend can help your horse recover quickly from a difficult situation or cope with stress more easily until you are able to remove the underlying cause.
Herbal World of the Horse
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