Throughout your horse’s life they will likely be placed in environments or situations which they may find stressful.
In small measures, acute, short-term stress can help the horse learn and adapt to its environment. However, if the problem persists into chronic, long-term stress, it could impact welfare in a negative way.
To ensure the best chance of success when working with your horse it is important to understand what your horse’s comfort zone is. Learning to recognise when your horse is losing confidence or not understanding what is being asked of them is vital for success. At these points it is crucial to take a step back and re-build their confidence to prevent any setbacks further along in their training.
Photo credit: John Stroud
All horses have a natural response to a short-term acute stressor. For example:
- FLIGHT - running from the situation or an attempt to flee the area.
- FIGHT - taking on the perceived danger to protect themselves, possibly striking out, biting or kicking.
- FREEZE - remaining completely still and preparing for the next move to protect themselves.
However, all horses are individual and can respond differently to situations and the environment they are in. How a horse responds will vary depending on each horse’s individual coping style and other individual factors like; temperament, handling, weaning, and training experiences, as well as their type.
For example, a highly-strung Thoroughbred is likely to compare more excitably to a laid-back cob1.
The response to stress can be described in two ways:
1) Their stress tolerance - how much stress the horse can cope with
2) Their coping style2 - how the individual horse tries to minimise stress once their stress tolerance has been reached.
Types of Coping Styles
There are two forms of coping styles horses will use to try and minimise stress:
Active (Proactive) Coping
Trying to solve problems. The horse will produce an active response to the stressor
• Fight or Flight
• Aim to take control
• Attempt to remove the stressor
• Remove themselves from the source of stress
Passive (Reactive) Coping
Passive acceptance of the situation. The horse will show no obvious signs of being affected.
• Freeze response
• Increased fear response
• Withdrawn - less desire to explore their surroundings.
An active response to stress will commonly lead to the horse feeling frustrated, which is a known characteristic in the early development of stereotypies2. This, along with the fact that active copers will commonly show behavioural traits similar to stereotypic horses, suggests they are more likely to develop stereotypical behaviours, when exposed to long-term stress.
Behavioural traits that may be observed include: a quick and sudden reaction to stimuli, a strong flight instinct or more panicked characteristics when exposed to an unfamiliar or stressful setting.
Whether these traits lead to the development of stereotypical behaviours will be dependent on the level of restriction in the horse’s management along with their environment and stress tolerance.
Passive copers are commonly less motivated and as a result display less of the stereotypic behaviours seen by active copers. However, without this motivation horses can find difficulty in reducing the impact of the stressor which can lead to a state of learned helplessness2.
Being Aware of a Horse’s Coping Style
It is important to understand a horse’s behaviour to know how they are coping with a stressor.
Being unaware of a horse’s stress level and forcing them to complete a task or punishing them for displaying behaviours characterised within their coping style, can have a negative impact on the horse’s ability to learn and perform and in extreme cases lead to the development of learned helplessness3.
As well as this, through failing to recognise when and how a horse is reacting to a stressor, we also risk our own safety.
When interacting with or handling any horse consider the following:
- Use low stress handling techniques - Remain calm and relaxed. Aim to increase the use of positive reinforcement and eliminate the use of punishment by using the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive (LIMA) training strategies.
- Monitor the horse’s body language - Be able to recognise the first signs of nervousness, fear, anxiety or aggression, considering both coping styles. For example, ears back and head tossing (active) or decreased eye contact and a ‘glazed’ expression (passive).
Learned helplessness refers to the horse having the feeling of no control over their circumstances, and no matter what their actions may be, these circumstances cannot be changed even if new opportunities arise. This feeling is often the result of previous experiences and causes the horse to essentially shut down behaviourally, and no longer try to escape or avoid unpleasant circumstances.
Inappropriate training practices can lead to the development of learned helplessness. These inappropriate methods can include continuous negative reinforcement without positive reinforcement to reward the desired behaviour.
For example, the continued application of unnecessary pressure until the horse gives up on trying to escape the pressure and shuts down behaviourally.
A practical example of this when riding may be asking the horse to stop but not releasing the pressure when they do so, creating a sense of confusion.
Horses in the state of learned helplessness have been recognised as showing the following behaviours4:
- Decreased response to pressure
- Lowered levels of aggression
If you believe your horse has developed a sense of learned helplessness, contact an equine behaviourist who will be able to help resolve these characteristics.
Click here for advice specific to donkeys.
1) Safryghin, A et al. (2019) Testing for Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Domestic Horses (Equus caballus) Across Different Contexts – Consistency Over Time and Effects of Context. Frontiers in Psychology. 10. pp 849. ;
2) Ljichi, C. et al. (2013) Evidence for the role of personality in stereotypy predisposition. Animal Behaviour. 85(6). pp1145-1151. ;
3) Squibb, K. et al (2018) Poker Face: Discrepancies in behaviour and affective states in horses during stressful handling procedures. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 202. pp 34-38. ;
4) Mclean, A,N. & Christensen, J,W. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 190 pp. 18-27.
Find out more about the key elements that contribute towards a strong partnership between you and your horse and learn how to spot the tell-tale signs that something isn’t quite right.