How to Deal With An Anxious Horse

Horses are surprisingly anxious creatures, and it can take some effort to handle your horse’s anxiety. Separation anxiety and performance anxiety are the two most common forms of anxiety in horses, with the first step being to work out what triggers your horse’s anxiety.

What causes anxiety in horses?

Horses are a prey species in the wild, meaning their first instinct is to flee. This makes them a highly sensitive animal that is prone to anxiety when placed in stressful or unfamiliar scenarios.
Unfortunately, the environments we put our horses in counteract their natural tendencies. Instead of grazing throughout the day, we feed them at set times that are suitable to us, or place them in stables instead of letting them spend more time with the herd. Factors like these can make your horse more prone to anxiety, and present unique issues for horse owners to tackle.

Signs of horse anxiety

If your horse is displaying any of the following signs, it is quite likely suffering from anxiety:
  • Shaking or trembling: Just like humans, horses may shake or tremble when they're anxious. You will visibly see their skin ripple and twitch.
  • Weaving and stall walking: Horses who weave-walk or sway from side to side are displaying signs of stress and anxiety. A horse that walks around in circles may also be feeling bored or stressed, with this repetitive movement putting strain on their joints and ligaments while also burning excess calories.
  • Backing into a corner: If a horse backs into the corner of its stall, it is trying to escape a perceived threat.
  • Rearing: A horse that rears to strike with its front legs is frightened, and must be calmed down to avoid accidents.
  • Rolling eyes: A frightened horse may also roll its eyes back, exposing the whites of its eyes.  
  • Bolting or spooking: A horse that suddenly bolts away has likely been frightened by something or is in a constant state of anxiety, meaning it can be easily spooked.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is caused when a horse is moved away from its herd mates, particularly when it comes to being moved from the pasture into the stable. In this situation, anxious horses may try to bolt or return to the herd. This anxiety may also come to the surface in the form of a horse bolting back to the familiarity of the stable when being ridden alone in a riding arena.

Performance anxiety

Horses may also suffer from performance anxiety at shows or events in which there is constant action all around them. Even calm horses may spook when in the show ring due to all the stimulus around them. It’s also worth remembering that horses can’t distinguish between the hustle and bustle of the track and that of the local show - it will still send them the cue that it is time to perform, causing them to tense up.

What you can do to manage horse anxiety

To address your horse’s anxiety, start off with a visit to the vet. You want to ensure that your horse is not suffering from an undiagnosed condition that is causing it pain and stress. Once you’ve ensured your horse is otherwise well, you can utilise some of the below techniques to reduce its anxiety:
  • Establish a routine to provide your horse with structure and certainty throughout the day
  • Minimise the changes your horse has to face routinely, and slowly introduce your horse to any big changes like a new pasture or stable.
  • Work with a trainer to identify any stress that you may be placing on your horse through your own tense body language.
  • Change your tack if you suspect the bit or saddle may be putting pain or stress on your horse.
  • Try trust-building exercises to familiarise your horse with obstacles that may otherwise be frightening.
  • Ensure your horse is getting enough exercise, as boredom or pent-up energy may cause anxious behaviours like weaving or stall walking. Longer turnout with the herd can also help to reduce your horse’s anxiety.
  • Ride with a buddy if your horse does not fare well on its own to acclimatise it to riding with a smaller group and, eventually, on its own.
As trusted equestrian supply experts, Gilberts can help you find the products you need to keep your horse healthy, happy and comfortable.