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Mental and Physical Health

Melissa and I have done several posts on the mechanics of transitioning horses to our set up when they first arrive at our farm. Today I’d like to come at this topic from a slightly different angle by talking about how the right physical settings can help adjust a horse’s mental state by minimizing stressors. This is particularly relevant for us as quite a number of horses that arrive here come with considerable mental and physical baggage.

Like some people, some horses adapt to changes quite readily and are instantly happy in nearly any situation. Other horses don’t handle situations they perceive as stressful quite so well. Some horses may “voice” their distress with their current stressful situation in a number of fairly dramatic ways. This sometimes includes showing physical symptoms such as gas colic, ulcers, fussy eating and various stereotypical behaviours.

Horses that arrive here with a history of physical symptoms partially or wholly caused by stress can take a year or more to fully transition into their groups. We are frequently told that the horse in question is IR (insulin resistant). I find it interesting that many of the horses that are described as IR are the ones who, whether it was obvious or not, struggled mentally in their prior living arrangements. Often they arrive with long lists of medications and supplements and pages of instructions on managing feeding and medicating to minimize symptoms. Believe me we take these notes very seriously when these sorts of horses first get off the trailer. As I tell all of our prospective clients we can have any problem at any time, but the most likely time for a problem that requires veterinary assistance is during the first several weeks of transition.

One of the more dramatic symptoms that often presents itself in these situations is the unpredictable and sometimes rapid weight shifts that occur as the horse’s mental and physical conditions begin to stabilize. We have learned over time that rapid weight gains and losses during transitions with these sorts of horses are actually a good sign but it does not change the fact that everyone, including us, still finds them pretty stressful. The good news is that through the years after at least a hundred transitions we have never not have a horse come out happy and healthy on the other side. However we have had a couple that we really wondered for awhile whether they were ever going to get there or not.

There are countless stressors that can have an impact on horse health and it is beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to address them all in an adequate manner. It is also beyond the scope of this blog to identify all that we do to minimize stressors on our horses. However it’s the 80:20 rule writ large. There are a few stressors that are easy to identify and easy to correct. By solving them, we manage to eliminate most of our problems. In my opinion perhaps the biggest and most overlooked stressor in horses today is also the most obvious and that is boredom. We address boredom and minimize a lot of other stressors by keeping our transition program simple and consistent, starting with the way we feed.

Free choice, moderate quality pasture and hay actually addresses both physical and mental needs. Horses in the wild eat many small forage meals throughout the day and because they are prey animals they especially like to eat at night. Having forage in the guts all the time helps regulate acid production which has a lot of beneficial effects at controlling metabolic diseases AND ulcers. One of the things I tell clients with “ulcery” horses confined to stalls is to boost the amount of forage (and reduce the quality if necessary to prevent weight gain) in their horses diet until he/she is refusing 5-10% of it. This is particularly important during the overnight hours as that is when horses really want to eat.

Having forage available all the time also eliminates the worry associated with not getting enough to eat and discourages bolting feed which can, at times, lead to impaction colics. Lots of forage also helps regulate acid production after grain feeding….important in horses with ulcers. Because so many of our horses are IR or Cushings we use a feed that is high in energy but fairly low in NSC, while being quite high in fibre. This also has an impact on reducing acid production which is good for ulcers and helps limit and control many other metabolic conditions.

How we feed is also important. Everyone gets fed in feedbags on pasture. We soak all the feed and then add supplements and medications as necessary. Feeding in feed bags ensures that nobody can steal from one another and at the same time we can treat, feed, supplement and medicate every horse as an individual. Because one of us stands with them in the pasture while they eat we get a real feel for their normal eating speed and eating behaviour. In addition to checking for injuries at every feeding, by standing with them it is easy to notice any off behaviors and other conditions at a very early and treatable stage; stuff that would get missed in any other feeding situation.

Horses are very much wired to be a part of a herd and it is rare to find a horse that is truly happy when it perceives that it is alone. It has been our experience that having one or more companions to groom and play with ranks highest on most horse’s wish lists, whether or not they’ve ever shown signs of wanting friends before they arrived here. Strangely the hardest horses to transition, the ones with the most mental and physical problems are the ones that always end up becoming extremely herd bound. Along with grazing, playing and grooming take up a large amount of a horse’s day on this farm and this activity helps to keep them mentally alert which, conversely, also calms them.

While most horses do well in groups they also very much have a need for their own space. In rare instances introducing horses into a group in small paddocks where it’s not possible for them to have their own space separate from the group can create more problems than it solves. Groups work here because our pastures are big enough…20 acres or more…that horses can choose to interact with the group or with their own special friend(s) at will. They can always choose to have their own space whether that means being twenty feet from the group, two hundred feet from the group or sometimes a few thousand feet from the group.

As the horses graze and play throughout their day they get an awful lot of low impact exercise. We have put pedometers on some of the horses and it is surprising how much they walk and run over the course of a 24 hour day. In addition to promoting a reasonable and healthy weight as well as overall fitness there is no doubt that continuous movement also greatly aids the digestive process in horses. Continual low impact movement also helps work off excess energy and is mentally calming for the horses. I say that because at times one or more horses will go from quietly grazing to exploding into a full gallop, do a lap or two (maybe equivalent to a mile or two) around the pasture and then immediately go back to quietly grazing.

I would be remiss in this discussion if I did not quickly mention teeth and feet. This post is getting long and I won’t go into great detail here but it is truly surprising to see the poor state of both teeth and feet on many of the horses that get off the trailer on this farm. If the horse cannot eat comfortably and cannot walk comfortably everything else doesn’t matter very much. Melissa has done several posts on teeth and feet and we have probably said enough on these topics.

Melissa and I take what we do very seriously. We have learned over time that it is quite possible to feed a diet that is nutritionally adequate and correctly balanced while still struggling with an unthrifty, unhealthy horse. As we try to work through and make sense of what we are seeing we often wind up becoming more of a detective than anything else. I have listed some of the most common stressors we see and what we do to address them. I hope you can find some good in my post and I hope some of it is relevant to your situation.


Trigger and Moe

Tony and Hemi

Thomas, Levendi and Homer

I was pretty sure that was Maisie on the far left along with Cuffie and MyLight in the shed . . .

. . . but I had to zoom in and confirm I had the right bay mare. It was, indeed, Maisie napping hard.

Walden, Fabrizzio and Merlin were looking very alert

Griselle, Timbit and Miracle

Clayton was having the perfect afternoon, napping while Walon groomed on him

Leo, Trigger and Grand

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