Moody Horses

Emotions have a powerful influence on how an individual behaves and views the world.1  The negative emotions that go along with mood swings can lead to pessimistic thinking and impact quality of life. Exactly what causes moodiness isn’t well understood. Various aspects of a horse’s environment and biology affect its emotional state, and a few of these are presented below.

If you are a horse owner or has been involved with horses at all you have heard the old saying “mood mares” are the worst! Let’s explore why that is….by the way all the mares that I have owned (2) were very sweet and not moody at all!

What Causes Mood Swings?DSCN2662_0011

Medical conditions

A veterinarian should exam a horses that experience mood fluctuations or persistent negative emotions. Moodiness can be a sign of underlying health issues that flare up periodically, such as allergies, joint and muscular pain, gastrointestinal issues, and disorders of the nervous and endocrine system. In humans, mood fluctuations are also associated with psychiatric conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Whether horses suffer from these same mental disorders is not known. Previous injuries can cause occasional discomfort and associated changes in mood. If your horse grinds his teeth, it could be a sign that he is experiencing physical discomfort or stress.

Anxiety and stress

Moodiness has been linked to anxiety, and a string of bad days can lead to a loss of emotional control. Animals with an anxious temperament or who experience chronic stress tend to be more on edge, and negative emotions can be easily triggered by seemingly irrelevant or minor events. Interestingly, a recent study found that young horses showed larger swings in emotions than older horses in response in response to novel objects.2 Controlling mood swings caused by anxiety requires identifying and eliminating the sources of stress from the environment.

Hormonal changes

Hormones are known to play a role in controlling emotions and managing stress. They’re often blamed when a mare is moody, but much more is known about how hormones act on equine reproductive behavior than about how they affect emotions. Hormonal irregularities, including abnormal levels of thyroid and adrenal hormones, can cause fluctuations in emotions.  In humans, disruptions in daily activity can also lead to hormonal imbalances and increase the risk of mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.  It’s possible that disturbed routines also cause hormonal imbalances and moodiness in some horses. Sticking to a predictable routine by structuring activities at the same time every day can help maintain normal daily hormonal balance and stabilize mood.

“Keeping a journal can help identify patterns related to the horse’s shifting moods.”

Disrupted sleep

Disrupted sleep is closely linked to mood and anxiety disorders in humans, and when deprived of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, people often become sad and irritable. Horses also suffer from sleep deprivation if they get less than 60 minutes of REM sleep a day, on average, for about a week. This can happen if the horse is unable to lay down in a laterally recumbent position, because of physical discomfort, insufficient space, insecurity about the environment, or social pressure.3 A horse deprived of REM sleep will become visibly drowsy, but it isn’t known if sleep disturbances are linked to negative moods in horses as they are in people.

Environment

Even when mood swings seem occur without rhyme or reason, the horse is probably reacting to something that the owner simply didn’t experience or notice. Events in the environment are nearly always involved to some extent in triggering negative emotions in a moody horse. Keeping a journal can help identify patterns related to the horse’s shifting moods.  It’s important to think broadly by looking at the horse’s routine, activities, locations, time of day, weather, social interactions, diet, and more.  Nutrition is considered a vital component to mood management; consult with an equine nutritionist for advice about your horse’s diet and feeding schedule.

Training the Moody Horsehorse-carrot

Figuring out the reasons for a horse’s mood swings can be complex, and negative emotions can interfere with and frustrate training. When your horse is having a bad day, being flexible and adopting a different approach can help. Below are some general strategies that can be used to protect against the emotional highs and lows.

  • Environmental and behavioral enrichment can reduce a horse’s baseline anxiety and vulnerability to stressors. Providing more positive experiences in general and during training can reduce a horse’s pessimistic outlook and improve mood.
  • Moody horses should get regular physical exercise, so don’t give up and put your horse back into his stall when he’s in a bad mood. Exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, and these hormones can help reduce the effects of stress and improve mood. Voluntary exercise is thought to be more beneficial than forced exercise.
  • Avoid punishing a moody horse; it will only make his negative outlook and emotions even worse. Instead, readjust your expectations and demands.  Set the horse up for success by removing stressors from the environment, asking the horse to complete simple tasks, and generously rewarding his small successes.

These strategies will have limited success if there is an underlying medical problem, so consult with a veterinarian first if your horse has emotional swings or persistent negative moods.

 

References

1 Briefer Freymond, S., Briefer, E.F., Zollinger, A., Gindrat-von Allmen, Y., Wyss, C., and Bachmann, I.  (2014) Behaviour or horses in a judgment bias test associated with positive or negative reinforcement.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 158, 34-45.

2  Baragli, P., Vitale, V., Banti, L., and Sighieri, C. (2014) Effect of aging on behavioural and physiological responses to a stressful stimulus in horses (Equus caballus).  Behaviour 151, 1513-1533.

3 Larson, E.  (2012) Understanding equine sleep deprivation.  The Horse (April 4), http://www.thehorse.com/articles/28927/understanding-equine-sleep-deprivation

By Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant and comments by Diane Weinmann

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services

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HORSE EMOTIONS

by Annabel Kent and comments by Diane Weinmannhorse and boy

Can your horse sense your mood? “We can hide our irritation from other people by masking our emotions, because humans are not good at reading energy fields,” says Margrit Coates, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Animal Behavior at Southampton University, and author of Healing for Horses and Horses Talking: How to Share Healing Messages with the Horses in your Life (www.thehorsehealer.com).

“A horse will read and see through everything we are feeling. Emotional health must be in control. We need to be a confident leader emotionally with our horses.” This means we need to be very vigilant about how we’re feeling when we’re around our horses.

“We need to look deeper at our inner state because the horse reacts to the truth,” says Margrit. “If horses could speak or write they would tell us exactly how we are. We cannot put horses into human boxes, analysing these animals as types from our viewpoint. Horses are full of emotional instinct, and the nearest we ever get to associating with a wild animal. “Past experiences will program a horse to behave in a certain way,” she adds. “They are incredibly emotional animals. Even our own past experiences will emotionally affect how we are with our horses. If we have been told that we are useless and feel it, this will come through when we are around horses. Finding it difficult to take criticism can also have an effect on our behavior.

This philosophy includes other people who will be working with your horse. “Before getting a trainer, you need to look at the emotional state, characteristics and qualities of that trainer before you let him/her near your horse, as they have a massive influence upon your horse emotionally.”

Training? Be happy “The first rule is that if you feel tense and angry, just don’t bother to school your horse,” says Sheila Bryant, who has been riding and training horses for over 30 years and uses the Bowen technique professionally on both horses and humans (www.healthwithbowen.co.uk). “When it comes to schooling, you need to feel emotionally positive and relaxed. Otherwise the horse will pick up on your mood and respond negatively.”

Sheila emphasizes the value of checking your breathing. “Is it easy and relaxed? This is of paramount importance as your breathing can influence the purity, strength and speed of your pace. If it’s ragged and aggressive, imagine what that can do to the horse.”

Breathing is also important to Jenny Rolfe, a classical trainer and author of the upcoming book, Ride from the Heart (www.spanishdressagehorses.co.uk). She has based her training methods on the horse’s sensitivity to our breathing. In her book, she shows how we can use lateral breathing exercises to help master our emotions and lead to a feeling of calmness. The horse responds to the deep breathing, becoming the rider’s emotional mirror, and the rider can then influence him with calm leadership.

“We can sometimes forget we are not programming a machine,” adds Jenny. “Horses are living animals. We have to make a conscious effort, especially in the beginning, to be very self-aware and vigilant about where our emotions are when training horses. By becoming aware of how much more perceptive horses are than humans, we then start to make it work for us when communicating with our horses. We need to treat them as our friends, not naughty students. We need to be emotionally consistent to develop a strong, solid relationship. It is no good being patient one day and impatient the next.”

For the best ride, Jenny also advises warming up to determine how your horse is feeling that day. “Loose work is very good before riding as it not only helps prepare the horse for ridden work, but it’s another way for the trainer to find out where her mood is at, rather than getting straight on without a thought,” says Jenny.

The same goes for you as the rider. If you’re feeling emotional, it’s important to get your feelings in line before riding, since the emotional and the physical are so deeply connected. “If we can learn to control our emotions and feelings, then we can control our physical body,” explains Jenny. “Rarely can we have a thought without a reaction from our body.”horse with girl

As an animal communicator, Diane can vouch for the fact that horses pick up on our moods and thoughts.  The minute you are around a horse, they know what you are thinking and what you’ve been through.  When I was sad, my horse would put her head against mine and just kind of sigh.  We would stand like that, head to head, for minutes on end just being with each other and sharing without saying a word.  It was hugely comforting to Diane and her horse felt that she had provided a great service to her beloved owner—which she had.

As you can see, emotions are the driving force behind everything we do, and play a huge part in how we and our horses learn. So take the time to stop and think about how you’re feeling when arriving at the stable. Look in that imaginary mirror before you get out of the car. Do it again when standing next to your horse, and you will feel it. A happy you is a happy horse.

Horse friends (2)