How many times have you heard someone say they never realised how miserable their horse was until they moved to a new yard? I have lost count! Just like humans, horses can suffer from different forms of depression, but as owners we can be bad at spotting the signs that our horse might be depressed. We only notice a positive change in our horses after making some changes and then in hindsight realise they weren’t happy. We need to get better at spotting and treating depression in our horses.
How can you tell if your horse is depressed?
Depression can be hard to spot in horses as they can’t tell us how they are feeling and all horses are different, so the signs of depression for one horse could be normal behaviour for another horse. So it really comes back to the importance of knowing your horse. A French study looking at Riding School horses found that 24% of horses displayed a withdrawn stance associated with depression. But there are common symptoms you can look out for, especially if these are out of character for your horse.
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of sleep
- Developing stereotypies, or doing them more often
- Reluctant to work, or not being as keen to work as usual
- Avoiding other horses
- Being spookier or more anxious than usual
- Withdrawn Stance. Looks a bit sedated, head & neck level with back, staring into space, not moving much
- Switched off to humans & stimuli in their environment, unresponsive
- Potentially lower blood cortisol levels
Why might your horse be depressed?
There are so many reasons why your horse might be depressed. But typically it you can break it down into 2 factors, internal causes such as pain, or external causes from their environment. Some of the more common causes of depression in horses include:
- Isolation from other horses
- Feeding routines
- Stressed handlers
- Stressed horses
- Lack of sunlight (SAD sydrome)
- Constantly changing their routine/no routine
- Overtraining or over exercising
What can you do to help your depressed horses?
The best way to treat a depressed horse is to remove the cause of their depression. No matter what you think the cause might be, it is worth getting a vet and/or physio to check them over to rule out any physical issues you might have missed. Laminitis, arthritis, stomach ulcers, toothache and cushings are all conditions associated with depression in horses and can be easy to miss, especially in the early stages.
If you think they are feeling isolated, give them more social interaction. Are they turned out alone? How many horses can they see or touch from their stable? How much time do they spend in the stable? Answering these questions will help you identify areas you can improve.
They might be happier in a herd or a pair when turned out. They might be happier in a stable where they can see more horses. Could they have a stable with bars so they can see/touch the horse next to them?
Turning your horse out for longer can usually have some great benefits. They typically spend more time eating and roaming, what is great for their digestive system. They hopefully are able to see and socialise better with horses than if they were in the stable. They also get more time in the daylight.
Forage is vital to a happy horse. Most horses come in at night and have a single haynet until the morning. Do you know how long this hay lasts your horse? If the hay isn’t lasting them the night they are at risk of developing stomach ulcers. Changing how you feed them to increase the amount of time they have access to forage can help.
Find a routine what works
Horses like a routine. It doesn’t have to be 8am on the dot every day, but they like to know what is going to be happening and when. If you are on a big yard where horses are regularly coming and going at random times, you might want to move them next to horses who don’t leave that often, or maybe just move them to a quieter yard. You want them to know roughly what is going to be happening and when.
Reduce contact with stressful people & animals
If you think it might be stressed handlers or stressy horses causing their depression, try and reduce your horses contact and interaction with these people. Can you move your horse to be in a field/stabled next to calmer horses? Can you ask stressy people to not interact with your horse? This can be difficult on livery yards when they might be the grooms. But this might be a sign that you should move your horse elsewhere.
Reassess their exercise
How hard are you working them? Are they having days off? Are they having quiet days where they go out hacking or do something a bit different? Making small changes to their work routine giving them a day off every week or adding more variety to their work can help.
Treating a depressed horse will consist of a lot of trial and error as it can be difficult to identfy the cause once pain has been ruled out. There might be multiple environmental factors. But gradually making changes will help you see what your horse responds positively to.
Last Updated on 26/07/2022