You might think that depression is something that only people suffer from but horses can become depressed just as easily as we can. Unlike us, though your horse can’t literally tell you he’s depressed so has to tell you in his own language. There can be many reasons why a horse is suffering from depression or is chronically stressed but it’s important to know what can cause it as well as what to look out for.
Is your horse suffering from chronic pain?
Classed as any pain that lasts for longer than twelve weeks despite treatment, chronic pain can lead to a multitude of problems and issues with horses. It can affect their mood, appetite, ability to sleep and sadly also lead to depression. Often it’s not the pain that causes depression directly but more the fact that the pain is preventing them from being exercised, this can cause stress which can if ignored lead to depression.
Has your horse recently suffered an injury or illness?
Similar to chronic pain, if your horse has suffered a bout of illness or had an injury then lead to depression, again not so much due to the illness or injury but more because they will often be on box rest with little or no turnout time and therefore no company from other horses.
Is your horse stressed?
Stress can cause all sorts of issues with horses, whatever the cause of the stress is the results can still be the same. As with humans who develop ‘nervous’ habits, horses are no different and when under stress they can display a number of vices such as cribbing. If the stress isn’t addressed then it can sadly naturally progress into depression.
Is your horse getting enough exercise?
Scientists have found a direct link to lack of exercise and depression, while not exercising won’t cause depression it will compound the problem if a horse is already depressed. Exercising releases endorphins which are nature’s ‘feel-good’ drug and will help to lift your horse’s mood so it goes without saying that the lack of exercise can have a direct effect on your horse and how he’s feeling.
Is your horse turned out enough?
Horses are very sociable animals and can get upset and stressed if they’re left on their own for a prolonged period Even if they’re not turned out with others just the ability to see them will help. Horses take it in turns to keep watch for predators so when a horse is on his own not only will he not be able to relax for fear of predators but he’ll also miss the company.
Is your horse lonely?
Horses need the company of other horses, it helps them to feel safe but it also helps them to feel like they are part of a herd. If for whatever reason though, you’re not able to do this then your horse will need some other form of company. Sheep are good company for horses and make a good alternative, even a cat would be better than no company at all. It’s also important to visit your horse daily, this will help to stop him feeling lonely too.
Is your horse bored?
Boredom is a big cause of stress in horses and if nothing is done about this it can lead to depression. Horses, as with all intelligent animals, need to have mental stimulation, not only does it keep their mind active and alert it will also stop them from being bored.
What are the signs of a horse suffering from depression?
The symptoms of depression in horses are very similar to those of humans and likewise, every horse will display different symptoms. An obvious sign in one horse may not even be present in another but as a rule though horses with depression will typically display a number of these signs.
- Facing a wall for prolonged periods – This is especially noticeable in the stall, a horse will stand facing a wall and show no interest in anything around them.
- Withdrawn posture – They will stretch their neck out, often making it level with their back. They’ll stare into space and will exhibit little or no eye and ear movement.
- Mood changes – Your horse may be withdrawn in his stall but overreact to anything he perceives as frightening or unusual while being ridden.
- Loss of appetite – Depressed horses won’t show any interest in food and may start to lose weight as a result of this.
- Not interested in treats – Like a loss of appetite, horses suffering from depression will show no interest in treats, even if left in the stall for them.
- Not responding to any tactile stimulation – Horses are naturally responsive to tactile stimulation, but a depressed horse won’t display any reaction to being stroked or groomed and will probably stop grooming other horses too.
- Shows no interest in surroundings – Naturally curious creatures, a horse that is withdrawn won’t be interested in his surroundings, almost as if he’s not really there and hasn’t seen what’s happening around him.
- Exhibits bad habits such as cribbing or weaving – Horses develop bad habits for a number of reasons but stress and depression are the number one reasons. If your horse has developed a bad habit and is also displaying some of the other symptoms listed then he’s very likely to be suffering from depression.
How can I tell if my horse is depressed or if he’s just feeling stressed?
While both stress and depression display a lot of the same symptoms depression is far more intense than stress. If your horse is suffering from stress then he may appear to be grumpy whereas a horse with depression is far less likely to interact in any way at all. That said though stress can lead to depression if it’s not treated so it’s important to deal with that straight away.
What should you do if your horse is depressed?
The most important thing is to find out what is causing your horse to be depressed and address that.
- Pain – Pain is probably the easiest and the hardest cause of depression to treat. If your horse is in pain but it’s not chronic then speak to your vet about some form of pain relief, if however though your horse is suffering from chronic pain then pain relief hasn’t worked. If this is the case then you might want to try some sort of alternative therapy such as hydrotherapy or ultrasound massaging. Again though speak to your vet before about the options that are available to you and your horse.
- Injury/Illness – If your horse is on box rest then try and give him as much stimulation as possible. Put him in a stall where he can see other horses, this is especially helpful if his illness prevents him from getting close to others.
- Stress – Stress is much easier to treat the depression so it’s important to find out what is stressing your horse. If he’s frightened over something try and help him to overcome his fears by slowly exposing him to it at his own pace. It’ll take the but with your help and reassurance, he will overcome his fears. Try not to drastically change your horse’s routine too quickly as that ill undoubtedly cause stress too.
- Lack of exercise – Horses need daily exercise, even if you’re not able to ride every day they still need some form of exercise. Instead of riding you could take your horse for a walk and allow him to explore the surroundings in his own time. If you’re not able to visit your horse every day then you’ll need to ask somebody to go when you can’t.
- Not enough turn out – Turn your horse out with other horses as much as you possibly can, he needs to be outside but also needs the company of other horses. If your horse is on box rest which is preventing you from turning him out try and put him in a stall where he can see other horses.
- Lonely – Horses need the company of other horses, it’ll not only stop them from getting lonely but will also help to combat stress. If you’re able to, turn your horse out regularly with other horses.
- Boredom – It’s better to prevent your horse from getting bored in the first place because then he hasn’t developed any bad habits that could encourage depression. I wrote an article a little while ago on how to stop your horse from-getting bored that might help.
As with so many things, it’s far better to prevent them from happening in the first place rather than dealing with them when they do. Even if your horse isn’t showing any signs of depression its still important to not allow him to get bored, turn him out with other horses regularly and make sure he gets plenty of exercise. Bonding with your horse will also help to prevent him from getting stressed and enable him to mentally deal with injuries and illness much better.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉