Managing Stress

by Jack Young

Published in Eclectic Horseman
Nov/Dec 2009, Issue No. 50, p. 11

If I told you that I really stressed my horses today, what would you think? Would you assume that I really rammed and jammed them around? Would you picture a horse that is all tensed up, wide-eyed and sweating, with a worried look? The connotation of the word stress is usually not good. Nevertheless, most horses and riders experience stress in some form or another.

Stress in horses can be defined as the non-specific response of the body to any pressure or request. Pressure can be defined as the application of force to something (the horse) by something else (the human) through direct or indirect contact. The mere act of entering a round pen with a range-raised two-year-old could be perceived by the horse as too much pressure and result in some type of stress.

Mental stress can lead to physical stress, and physical stress can lead to mental stress. Stress begins in the mind of the horse and can result in a brace in the body or the mind. This kind of stress is called "dis-stress." Distress can result in excessive production of adrenalin and resulting anxiety; this can eventually lead to the emergency reaction called the "fight or flight response" to the point where a horse just shuts down. We've all seen or experienced too many examples of this type of stress.

Ideally we want to manage stress before it begins to overpower the communication and relationship between the horse and rider. I call this "working on the edge of trouble." The good news is that there is stress that does not have to be avoided: "eu-stress." Eustress is a positive, favorable and highly desired form of stress. It literally means "good stress" in Greek.

The most common example of eustress is the thrill from a roller coaster ride. Eustress is acute and quick and there is no prolonged effect. Another example of eustress is the way you feel after successfully meeting a challenge, such as competing in a ranch roping or a working cowhorse event. The pressure is ever present, but it is also a healthy level of stress to get the job done. Eustress (good stress) can motivate higher performance and is actually a prerequisite to gaining improved results. Good stress such as a tough workout or assignment can result in physical development or learning.

Eustress is controlled stress that results in top performance at high-stress activities such as a dressage test, working a cow, or getting a young horse to take a specific lead. This good stress provides the focus and energy needed in order to perform at the highest level of the individual's ability. Nevertheless, too much stress of any kind causes a disruption of performance and may cause both physical and mental problems. With horses we are usually talking about physical pressure resulting in good or bad stress depending on the amount or duration of the pressure.

Good stress is not experienced continually, as we saw in the roller coaster example. It excites but lets the system quickly go back to normal by resting. Bad stress is not necessarily produced by what you or the horse perceive as unpleasant events. Even repeatedly asking a colt to soften could stress him. If the body never returns to a state of rest and recovery, the results will be bad stress. Asking a horse to repeat something over and over is really nothing more than nagging.

An example of this would be trying to improve a horse's stop by trotting and asking him to stop about 15 times in a row. Another example is too much round-penning. Both are good ways to stress a horse and turn a small problem into an issue. This can cause frustration and the temptation for the rider to drill the horse even more, increasing bad stress. Bad stress results in increased adrenaline, anxiety, and physical and mental braces.

Suppose you have a horse that's a little late on a flying lead change to the left. You might present about three opportunities for the both of you to improve your timing and feel on that lead; then you could stop and rest. If he's still late, you could try a couple more, then rest again or go do something else. By doing something else you are letting him mentally rest. Rest allows a horse to mentally soak, sort things out, and return to a state of calmness.

Rest and soaking (not to be confused with the release) are the most important aspects in avoiding stress damage. By rest and soaking, I mean where a horse quits moving, can drop his head, lets the air out, and is given the time it takes to relax and return to a state of calmness. Meanwhile you lean on the saddle horn or stand calmly in the roundpen. This gives you time to relax, manage your own stress and do some observing and comparing.

This good stress--eustress--can result in calmness, compliance, a try, or some understanding between the rider and the horse. What we're looking for is managing stress in a way that will result in top performance with an attitude of response instead of reaction. Rest and soaking can be your main tools of stress management.