08 Jun Signs a Horse Is Anxious, Nervous, or Stressed
How to Tell If Your Horse is Stressed
Being able to recognize horse body language can help you take better care of your horse and provide for their needs. Stress and anxiety in horses can trigger serious health problems like weight loss and gastric ulcers, even contributing to colic in some cases. For this reason, it’s vital that you’re able to recognize when your horse is feeling anxious, nervous, or stressed.
What are signs that a horse is anxious, nervous, or stressed? Horses that are anxious, nervous, or stressed will often display the following behaviors:
- not wanting to stand still
- whinnying frequently
- widened eyes and nostrils
- a quickened heart rate
- grinding teeth
- defecating frequently
- refusing to eat, drink, or sleep
- yawning frequently
In this article, I’ll share a more in-depth look at why horses may exhibit these behaviors and what can cause them to become stressed or anxious. I’ll also share what you can do in some situations to help your horse calm down. To learn more about how to tell if your horse is anxious, nervous, or stressed, keep reading!
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Not Want to Stand Still
Any time I have seen a stressed or anxious horse, the horse hasn’t been standing still. These horses will often pace in their stalls or along a fence line. Even if you’re trying to hold an anxious horse still, the horse will often dance around you, keeping their feet moving as much as they can.
The reason a nervous horse would display this behavior is because of its natural prey instincts. As prey animals, a horse’s instinct is to flee or run away from any situation which may make them feel uncomfortable or in danger. Often times when a horse is stressed, they’re in a situation where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe but they aren’t able to run away. To act off of the natural instinct in them, the horse will do anything to keep their feet moving, as that’s what they know to do in unsure circumstances.
What To Do:
If you find yourself in a situation like this, try and do everything you can to make the environment feel normal and safe to your horse. If your horse is separated from other horses for some reason, make sure they’re in a place where they can at least see another horse. Another thing you can do in preparation to help your horse in these types of situations is to desensitize them to different things, like taking them off the property, loading them in a trailer, and getting them used to new objects. To learn more about how to desensitize a horse, check out my article Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Whinny Frequently
Another aspect of being prey animals is that horses live in herds with other horses. The herd provides extra security and protection to a horse, so it’s natural for horses to want to be around other horses. One sign that a nervous horse may display is whinnying frequently. Horses will often do this when they’ve been separated from other horses, so they whinny to try and locate where the herd is.
What to Do:
If your horse is whinnying incessantly, it’s because they feel nervous being away from other horses. As I mentioned in the previous point, if you have to isolate your horse for some reason, try and place them in a paddock or stall where they can at least see other horses. If you’re trying to ride your horse or maybe you’ve taken them to a new location, one of the best things you can do is try to get the horse to focus on something else rather than where their horsie friends could be. You can do this through groundwork or riding exercises that will make your horse focus on what you’re asking.
To learn more about how to get your horse’s attention, check out my article How to Get Your Horse to Pay Attention to You.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Have Widened Eyes and Nostrils
Usually, it is easy to recognize an anxious horse just by the expression on its face. A nervous horse will often have a raised head with wide eyes and flared nostrils. When a horse feels as if they are in potential danger, they will widen their eyes to try and enhance their vision and they will flare their nostrils to try and enhance their scent. Through its senses, a horse can notice danger coming its way.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Have a Quickened Heart Rate
We’ve already talked about how a horse’s natural instinct is to run away from danger. This means while predators get an adrenaline rush from chasing an animal, prey animals, like horses, get an adrenaline rush from running away from something. The adrenaline enables them to act quickly and run fast for long periods of time.
The adrenaline in your horse will be triggered when they are in a situation that makes them feel anxious or nervous. In these situations, the horse doesn’t feel safe. For this reason, you may notice that a horse that is stressed will have a quickened heart rate. You may also be able to physically see the heartbeat in the horse’s neck.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Grind Their Teeth
A stressed horse will often grind its teeth in order to re-direct its energy. Teeth grinding is often seen in horses that are confined to certain areas for longer periods of time, like a stall or an isolation pen. While these horses may not display any other signs of distress, you should definitely look further into your horse’s physical and mental health if you notice them grinding their teeth. Teeth grinding can also be a symptom of other physical problems in your horse’s body.
What to Do:
If your horse grinds their teeth due to being in a stall for long periods of time, try lengthening the amount of time they have in turnout. Horses were designed to be moving and roaming 24/7, so being in a stall may seem unnatural to certain horses. If your horse has to be in a stall for some reason, make sure they have a companion close by. You can also provide toys for them to play with in their stall.
One useful tool I have found that is effective at calming a horse’s nerves is the KONG Equine Hanging Kit w/ Treat Ring. This toy is made from durable rubber especially made for horses, and it has pockets and holes where you can stuff treats, snacks, and hay. I personally have watched my pony, Tucker, play with the KONG Equine Horse Toy for hours as he tries to get all the treats out of their hiding places! Food is a great motivator when it comes to holding your horse’s attention!
Stimulating your horse’s mind can often help to ease any stress or anxiety your horse may be feeling. The KONG Equine Hanging Kit is designed to get your horse’s attention using food, then to hold their focus and cause them to think through the process of how to actually get the food. The toy is able to be hung by a rope from rafters or posts so your horse can swing it around, or you can also place it on the ground and let the horse try to figure it out that way! I’ve seen my horse bite, kick, and roll on this toy and it has yet to be damaged in any way. You can get 15% off any KONG Equine Toy today by using the code equinehelper at checkout. To learn more, visit their website here.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Defecate Frequently
If you find that your horse is using the bathroom frequently when you take them out for a ride or take them out of the pasture, it can be a good sign that they are nervous. By “frequently,” I mean going to the bathroom every 10-15 minutes or so. This might be too much information but this behavior is quite similar to human behavior as well. I can’t tell you how many riding competitions I’ve been at where I was so nervous to compete that I had to run and use the bathroom. Being nervous just has a way of making people, and animals, have to use the bathroom.
What to Do:
I often notice this behavior when the horse is confined to an area, like in a trailer, standing tied, or even in a stall. One thing you can try is taking the horse out and just hand-walking them in a larger area. This may help the horse relax to where they don’t feel like they need to go to the bathroom every few minutes.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Refuse to Eat, Drink, or Sleep
A serious sign that your horse is stressed, depressed, or physically sick is the horse refuses to eat, drink, or sleep. You can tell that a horse hasn’t slept because they’ll act sleepy or even be temperamental…just like me when I haven’t gotten adequate sleep! Horses need REM sleep, or deep sleep, just like humans.
What to Do:
If you notice that your horse hasn’t been eating, drinking, or sleeping, you need to act immediately, as this can lead to other health issues like dehydration and colic. If your horse has recently been moved away from other horses, put them back with the horses. If their living situation has changed, try and make their current living situation as comfortable and casual as you can. If all else fails, call the vet, as there may be an underlying health problem.
An Anxious or Stressed Horse May Yawn Frequently
As an equine massage therapist, I’ve seen many horses yawn continuously as they get massaged; this is often a sign that the horse is releasing tension and stress in its body. Have you ever been stressed before and noticed how it started to affect your body. Maybe your neck became stiff and your back was sore. Well, horses tend to also carry stress in their body too. If you notice your horse incessantly yawning, it’s probably because the horse is trying to release some of the tension it’s been carrying around due to stress.
What to Do:
First off, if your horse is displaying this behavior, you should and try and diagnose what is causing the horse stress; that way, you can treat the problem at its root. You can also help the horse release stress and tension by investing in an equine chiropractor or equine massage therapist. If this isn’t an option for you, try grooming your horse really well, as grooming acts as a massage for your horse and can help to relax muscles and release tension as well.
I hope you found this article helpful! If you want to learn more about horse behavior and what your horse may be feeling, check out my article Is My Horse Happy?
P.S. Save this to your “Horse Care” board!
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.