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Managing Stress and Anxiety in Performance Horses

Last updated: October 23, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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As a dedicated equestrian, you know that a high-performance horse isn’t just about speed and skill; it’s also about mental well-being. Stress and anxiety can not only hinder your horse’s performance but also impact its overall health.

In the competitive world of equestrian sports, it’s easy for a horse’s mental health to take a backseat to physical training. However, just like human athletes, horses can experience a range of emotions and can suffer from anxiety or stress. Understanding the signs and causes of these issues is crucial to maintaining a happy and successful equine athlete.

Throughout this blog post, we’ll explore common causes of stress and anxiety in high-performance horses and offer valuable tips for creating a supportive environment. By implementing these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to fostering a confident and relaxed horse ready to perform at its best, both in and out of the arena.

The Impact of Stress on Horses’ Performance and Well-being

Stress can significantly affect the performance of horses, impacting their physical and psychological well-being. Physically, stress can decrease a horse’s stamina and endurance, increase the risk of injury, and compromise its immune system, making them more susceptible to illness.

Picture of a young thoroughbred horse in training.
Training a young horse

Psychologically, stress can lead to decreased focus and concentration, reduced willingness to cooperate with the rider, and the development of negative associations with training or competition. These psychological effects can create a cycle of stress and anxiety that further impacts the horse’s performance.

The consequences of stress on horses can ultimately impact their overall performance and success. Horses experiencing stress may have lower scores in competition due to their decreased focus and cooperation.

Furthermore, a strained rider-horse relationship can develop, making progress in training and skill development more difficult. Understanding and addressing the potential effects of stress on horses, riders, and trainers can help work towards improving their horse’s well-being and overall performance.

Understanding Stress and Anxiety in Horses

Recognizing stress and anxiety in horses is essential to maintaining their well-being. The first step is to observe their physical signs. For instance, rapid breathing or excessive sweating might indicate that your horse is experiencing stress. Additionally, watch for any changes in behavior, such as increased restlessness, lack of focus, or difficulty following commands.

Besides the physical manifestations, horses can also exhibit psychological signs of stress and anxiety. Fearfulness might manifest as nervousness or skittishness, while depression can result in a disinterested or withdrawn demeanor.

Moreover, a horse dealing with stress might exhibit aggressiveness, reacting defensively or lashing out toward humans or other horses. Paying attention to these psychological signs is crucial, as they can provide valuable insight into your horse’s emotional state.

By understanding these physical and psychological indicators of stress and anxiety, you can better support your high-performance horse. With a keen eye and a caring heart, you’ll be able to identify and address any issues that arise, ultimately ensuring the mental well-being of your equine partner.

Common Causes of Stress and Anxiety in Performance Horses

High-performance horses face several stressors and anxiety triggers that can impact their well-being. One of the most common causes is travel and competition. Frequently being on the road, adapting to new environments, and the pressure of performing can be stressful for these sensitive animals.

Another factor contributing to stress and anxiety is inadequate turnout time. Horses are social and active creatures by nature. When they spend too much time confined to their stalls, they may experience restlessness and discomfort. Similarly, confinement and isolation from other horses can make them anxious and deprived of essential social interactions.

Inconsistent training or overtraining can also lead to stress in high-performance horses. An erratic schedule or pushing a horse too hard can take a physical and emotional toll. It’s essential to balance rigorous training and allowing your horse time to rest and recover.

Picture of a horse playing with a ball to release stress and anxiety.
Horse playing with a ball.

Additionally, illness or injury can significantly cause anxiety and stress in horses. As they recover, they might become stressed due to pain, discomfort, or changes in their daily routine. Lastly, poor nutrition can also contribute to stress and anxiety. A diet lacking essential nutrients can affect a horse’s overall health, energy levels, and mood.

By being aware of these everyday stressors, you can take proactive measures to minimize their impact on your high-performance horse. Creating a stable environment and addressing these concerns will help ensure your horse remains happy, healthy, and ready to perform at their best.

Strategies for managing stress and anxiety

Managing stress and anxiety in performance horses involves implementing various strategies to create a supportive and nurturing environment. Establishing a consistent routine is crucial, as it helps your horse develop a sense of stability and predictability.

This includes maintaining regular feeding times, following a structured exercise and training schedule, and ensuring sufficient turnout time for your horse to roam, play, and relax. Another key element in managing stress is providing ample social interaction for your horse.

Whenever possible, allow your horse to interact with other horses during turnout, fostering camaraderie and bonding. Carefully planned stabling arrangements can also promote social interactions and reduce feelings of isolation.

For example, I have a horse that becomes restless and loses weight when unable to see his favorite stablemate across the aisle, which highlights the importance of considering your horse’s social needs.

Picture of horses socializing.
Horses having fun

Environmental enrichment is another essential aspect of stress management. Providing toys and puzzles can help stimulate your horse’s mind and alleviate boredom. Additionally, offering grazing opportunities allows your horse to engage in natural foraging behaviors, promoting relaxation and contentment.

Lastly, implementing a balanced training program is vital in managing stress and anxiety. Ensure your horse’s training progresses gradually and includes a variety of exercises to keep it mentally and physically engaged. Remember to add rest and recovery periods, allowing your horse to recharge and maintain optimal health.

By integrating these strategies, you’ll create a well-rounded approach to managing stress and anxiety in your horse. This, in turn, will lead to a happier, healthier, and more successful equine partner.

Supporting your horse’s mental well-being through nutrition

Proper nutrition plays a significant role in supporting your horse’s mental well-being. Ensuring your high-performance horse receives a balanced diet is essential. Work with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to create a tailored feeding plan with the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals to meet your horse’s specific needs.

In some cases, incorporating supplements into your horse’s diet can help promote relaxation and focus. Calming supplements containing magnesium, vitamin B, and herbal extracts are available. However, it’s essential to consult a professional before introducing any new supplement to your horse’s diet, as each horse’s needs may vary.

Regularly monitoring your horse’s weight and body condition is crucial in maintaining their mental well-being. Sudden weight loss or gain might indicate stress, anxiety, or an underlying health issue. Keep a close eye on any changes and consult your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual.

By prioritizing nutrition, you’ll support your horse’s physical health and contribute to a more relaxed and focused mindset. A well-nourished horse is better equipped to handle stressors and perform at its best in training and competition.

Using Calming Supplements for Horses

Calming supplements can be valuable to your horse’s stress management plan. Various types of calming supplements are available in the market, including magnesium-based supplements, vitamin B complex supplements, and herbal supplements.

Each type aims to support your horse’s well-being by addressing specific nutritional or physiological needs. These calming supplements support the nervous system and aid relaxation and focus in your horse.

Magnesium-based supplements, for instance, help maintain normal nerve and muscle function, while vitamin B complex supplements support energy production and cellular processes. Herbal supplements often contain ingredients like valerian root or chamomile, known for their calming properties.

It’s essential to consult with a veterinarian or equine professional before introducing any calming supplement to your horse’s diet. They can help determine if a supplement is appropriate for your horse’s needs and guide you on the correct dosage.

Calming supplements should be used as part of a comprehensive stress management plan, alongside other strategies such as a consistent routine, proper nutrition, and a balanced training program. By incorporating these supplements judiciously and with professional guidance, you can further support your horse’s mental well-being and overall performance.

Picture of a horse getting an injection to calm it before a procedure.
Horse gets an injection to calm it before having a procedure.

Medications for Calming Horses

In some situations, prescription medications may be necessary for calming performance horses. Two common calming drugs are Acepromazine, commonly known as Ace, and Detomidine gel, also known as Dormosedan Gel. These medications are typically used for short-term calming purposes and should only be administered under veterinary supervision.

Indications for using these calming drugs include medical procedures, such as dental work or minor surgeries, and other situations where temporary calming is necessary, like trailer loading or clipping. It’s important to note that these medications are not intended as long-term solutions for stress management and should be used in conjunction with other stress-relief strategies.

There are potential side effects and precautions associated with these calming medications. Both Ace and Dormosedan Gel can cause sedation and decreased motor function, making it essential to monitor your horse closely while they are under the influence of these drugs. They should not be relied upon as long-term solutions for stress management, as they do not address the root causes of stress and anxiety in horses.

Veterinary supervision is crucial when using prescription medications for calming purposes. A veterinarian can determine the appropriate dosage and administration method for your horse, ensuring the safety and efficacy of the medication.

They will also monitor your horse for any adverse reactions or side effects that may occur. By working closely with a veterinarian, you can provide your horse with temporary relief in specific situations while continuing to prioritize its long-term mental well-being through comprehensive stress management strategies.

Monitoring stress and anxiety levels

Monitoring stress and anxiety levels in your horse is an ongoing process that requires vigilance and commitment. Regularly observing your horse’s behavior is crucial, allowing you to detect subtle changes that may indicate stress or anxiety.

Pay attention to their body language, eating habits, and interactions with humans and other horses. Keep a journal to track any noticeable patterns or changes over time. Collaborating with professionals, such as veterinarians, trainers, and equine behaviorists, can provide valuable insights into your horse’s mental well-being.

These experts can help identify signs of stress or anxiety, recommend appropriate interventions, and ensure your horse’s training program aligns with its physical and emotional needs. When you notice potential issues, it’s essential to address them promptly.

Early intervention can prevent long-term problems, such as chronic stress, poor performance, or health complications. Work with your support team to develop a plan of action that addresses the root causes of stress and anxiety and promotes a sense of calm and well-being for your horse.

By staying proactive and engaged in monitoring your horse’s stress and anxiety levels, you’ll be better equipped to support their mental well-being and help them reach their full potential as a high-performance athlete.

Picture of a horse with its ears pinned.
This young horse gets easily stressed.


Managing stress and anxiety in performance horses is a multifaceted endeavor that requires attention, care, and collaboration. Understanding the signs and causes of stress, implementing strategies to create a supportive environment, and prioritizing proper nutrition can significantly enhance your horse’s mental well-being.

Regularly monitoring stress levels and working closely with professionals will help you address any issues early on, ensuring the best possible outcome for your equine partner. Remember that a well-rounded approach is key to success.

By nurturing the physical and emotional aspects of your horse’s health, you’ll foster a confident and relaxed athlete, ready to excel both in and out of the arena. The bond between you and your horse will strengthen as you work together to overcome challenges and achieve your shared goals in the competitive world of equestrian sports.


What are the most common visual signs of stress in horses?

The most common visual signs of stress in horses include rapid breathing, excessive sweating, pinned-back ears, wide-eyed expression, tail swishing, head tossing, pawing at the ground, and changes in posture or gait.

How do you calm a nervous horse at a show?

To calm a nervous horse at a show, establish a consistent pre-show routine, practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing and gentle stroking, provide familiar items like their favorite treats, and ensure they have ample time to acclimate to the show environment. Stay calm and composed; your horse can sense your emotions and react accordingly.

Miles Henry