Vices & Stress Management

The root cause of cribbing, weaving and other vices is stress. Here are some tips to help your horse.

Sooner or later, most of us will have to deal with one or more vices in our horses. The fundamental cause of behaviors such as cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and others is stress. Stress is the emotional and physical way the horse’s body responds to pressure from the outside world. When stressed, his nervous system releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. These hormones give the horse the extra energy and strength he needs to escape from personal threats.

A Little is a Good Thing

A low level of stress is good for the horse. It helps keep the immune system under control, speeds up soft tissue repair, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. But when a horse is chronically stressed, it has a severe effect on his health and behavior.

Chronic stress leads to health and behavior problems such as stall vices, ground and saddle problems, digestion issues (colic) and reproductive conditions (miscarriage). The immune system can become impaired, leading to chronic muscle tension, increased blood pressure, heart disease and other ailments. These problems can lead to serious life-threatening illness such as colic, kidney disease, muscle damage, and even death.

Coping with Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can encourage the horse’s body to find a “coping method” to relieve the source of the problem. These coping methods manifest themselves as stall vices like cribbing, weaving, and stall walking, and ground problems such as pulling back while tied, an inability to stand still in the trailer, breaking into a dead sweat, or playing hard to catch. This can translate into riding problems like rearing, bucking, bolting, etc.

In any of these cases, your horse is looking for a way out, or a way to deal with the stress. The stall vices, ground problems, and riding issues can turn into habits similar to smoking or drinking. As I discussed in a previous article (“Got a Vice?” Volume 8, Issue 1), you first have to break the habit, and then solve the problem at hand.

Developing a Program

In this article, we are going to look at how to change the way your horse sees the situation, and then change how he controls his stress. Ideally, the more stress and the more the situation is out of control around your horse, the more you want to see him relax.

The market is flooded with supplements, shots and medications that advertise a calm and stress-free horse. For the most part, these are just gimmicks and a waste of money. True stress management addresses the root causes of stress, behavioral issues, and health issues caused from stress, to solve the problem.

There are two components to this program:

1. Change how your horse sees the situation

Horses don’t understand about getting hurt. They only understand life and death situations in which their instinct tells them to take flight or fight. For example, your horse sees a bike rider on the trail, does a 180 and bolts. Teaching him to face what he fears will change how he sees the situation.

Training your horse to see the situation differently starts on the ground in a round pen or small arena. I like to start with round penning basics. After the horse understands how to face me anywhere I go in the round pen without walking up to me, I am ready to start changing how he sees the situation.

Start with a tarp or something else that makes the horse a little nervous. It is important for him to feel uneasy in order to teach him how to control that emotion. If he doesn’t feel nervous, you can’t teach him how to control that emotion. Keeping well back from the horse, I will start dragging the tarp around the pen, making sure the horse is facing me (and the tarp) while I move.

Next, I start waving the tarp. It is important to go gently at first – you do not want the horse to blow up. I will then slowly increase the intensity of the tarp movement. After awhile, you can add in new stimuli and have your horse accepting each situation as non-threatening – be creative. The goal is to get the horse to accept each new stimulus and learn to control his fear. You cannot teach him not to be afraid, but you can teach them how to control his fears.

2. Change how your horse reacts to stress

Now that you have changed how your horse sees the situation, it is time to change how he controls his stress. When he is facing a situation that makes him nervous, scared or excited, he is starting to learn how to control that level of stress. Always start off with low-level stimuli until your horse becomes comfortable and able to handle that quantity of stress. As time goes on, you can add more stimuli to create higher stress situations and more stimuli at the same time. As you add each new stimulus, look to see if your horse is starting to lower his head and exhibit licking and chewing behavior – a sign he has relaxed and is controlling his nervousness.

The Five Senses

In changing how our horses see and react to stressful situations, we must train them on all their senses. Like people, horses have five senses – sight, sound, feel, smell, and taste. Each sense can alert the horse to danger, causing him to take flight and bringing on stress. Horses, like people, may use more than one sense at a time.

In the beginning, I train by stimulating one or two of the horse’s senses at a time. Then I work my way up to stimulating all five senses at once. You should create 30 or 40 different situations using all the horse’s five senses. Start small and build up. You will know when your horse is accepting and controlling the stress you are putting on him when he lowers his head and licks and chews.

In closing, teach your horse how “to see the situation differently”. Exposing him to many different stressful situations and stimuli will teach him to control his stress in any given situation. Besides helping him cope with stressful situations, he will be better able to work through stall vices, ground problems, and saddle problems.

Dealing With The Unfamiliar

Police horses are placed in many unfamiliar situations, but what they will actually encounter on the job can never really be simulated. Their training is more about how to handle the stress of unknown situations. I have trained many police horses, and the key is teaching them to cope. From this, the police horse learns to react to each situation in a calm, relaxed manner. After you change how your horse sees the situations you create in the round pen, you can begin riding him and adding in more unfamiliar objects.

Mike Hughes has been a horseman since birth; a family friend gave his parents a horse for him the day he was born. Mike grew up next to a poorly managed cattle ranch where his early exposure to horsemanship was rough handling and intimidation to create submission. Even as a young man Mike knew there had to be better way. Mike has specialized in problem solving, training for the Sacramento Mounted Police Association, and he has done demonstrations in the U.S, Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Mike has spent the last 7 years specializing in solving stall vices such as cribbing, weaving, stall kicking/ walking etc. after a dear friend’s horse ultimately died from colic brought on by cribbing. 916-218-8136,

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