“Help! My horse is getting stronger, I need a stronger bit can anyone recommend one?”
“I can’t stop my horse hacking, I need a stronger bit”
“How do you use a 3 ring gag I was thinking about using one on my child’s pony”
These are just a few examples of the posts I’ve read on social media. I try not to offer unsolicited advice, I know it can come across as ‘holier than thou’ but I think it’s important to sow seeds too. Perhaps you asked a question like this and that is why you’re here. This article isn’t about berating people for asking these questions, if you’re asking these questions, I think it’s great you’re seeking help. I’m all for people looking for advice, but sometimes on forums and social media it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Now, I can only see a little bit out of one eye myself, but I can see enough to know there are two things potentially worrying about this situation.
1) The person posting needs to be asking a different question (I’ll explain, bear with me) and
2) The answers range from ‘teach it some manners’ and ‘get the head in’ to ‘Use this bit, my horse loves it’. I don’t have time in this article to explain what’s wrong with those answers but suffice to say there is nothing accurate about them that will help the horse in any way.
It might seem obvious, but the question I want to ask is WHY? Why is your horse getting ‘stronger’? and we need to look at the term ‘stronger’.
What is a strong horse?
When people use the term strong, they usually mean they are becoming stronger in the hand, that they are hard to stop or turn, they rider needs to use more strength on the reins and ultimately (in this case) on the bit. If you are using a lot of strength on the reins you should know you are putting a lot of weight on to some very soft and delicate tissues, muscle and bone. Potentially you could damage the mouth and cause bruising/sores in the short term and bone spurs or permanent damage to the tongue long term (1).
Why is a horse strong?
While the word ‘strong’ may work for our view on the situation, it can be an unhelpful label that reduces our view of the whole situation. Let’s look at the horse and why you feel you need to be ‘stronger’ with them.
Now this isn’t the time to bore you with loads of neuroscience jargon, so I’ll cut straight to the bit you need to know, psychologically there is a likely possibility that many domesticated horses are suffering from long term (chronic) stress.
This is an article I read which I believe simplifies the psychophysical process.
“When you encounter a perceived threat — such as a large dog barking at you during your morning walk (or ride for our horses) — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.”
This is the perfect example of a short term stress situation which is directly related to instances such as fight or flight when a horse perceives a danger. As an example, this could be a case of jumping sideways when a bird flies out of a hedge.
But there is a problem with this, horses in the field don’t usually jump when a bird flies out of the hedge do they? Not usually and this is because the horse is more relaxed in the field, they feel safer in the herd (presumably you keep them in a herd) and generally speaking their stress levels (adrenaline and cortisol) should be lower. If they aren’t then this will explain the next bit even more!
Long term (chronic ) stress could be the key to many of the problems we see in horses today and it is related to heightened cortisol over a long period of time.
“Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. (3)”
“Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. (3)”
“Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa. Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk for later gut diseases or dysfunctioning. (3)”
What we can take away from this is that horses who are stressed are already compromised, by stabling them, by choosing their fieldmates, by not giving them fieldmates, by feeding them an incorrect diet and so on, we have already altered their body in to a state of hyper-arousal, they are ‘guarded’ in their muscles and ready to go. Then we stroll on down to the yard, put on the tack (completely unaware of any of this) and get on thinking we’ll go for a hack or ride in the school. But today there is a new dog, or it’s a bit breezy, or a new horse is on the yard and your horse is tipped over the edge. The next stage of this is a panic attack.
So is the horse strong or is the horse stressed/panicked? and what would really help the horse in this situation? A strong bit or bitless bridle? Nope! Finding what is going on with the horse and reducing their stress to help them get to a place where they are able to learn and listen to the communication tool you are already using.
What can we do to help?
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Check your horse is not in any pain! Pain causes distress, could come from poorly fitted tack, tension, muscular, teeth or even being over-rugged.
- Re-evaluate your horse’s management situation – can you make it more species appropriate? Turnout / company etc.
- If you’re not sure what you need check out the course How Horses Learn on Equine Academy
- Find out what is an appropriate species specific diet, try to find a nutritionist that doesn’t represent a feed company.
- Go back to basics with training, remember than being away from friends and working in a small area such as arena can be stressful.
- Whatever way you are training, take it slow – if your horse get over-aroused or you feel like it’s going nowhere, speak to a behaviourist to re-evaluate the training and help put you on a path that will increase confidence for both you and your horse.
What not to do
- Use a stronger bit.
- Use a stronger bridle.
- Work them through it (leads to flooding and learned helplessness).
- Call them unhelpful names.
- Label them as strong or naughty.
Ultimately, a less stressed horse will be healthier and more able to be in partnership with you, and that’s what we are really looking for, isn’t it?
I hope you found this article useful, feel free to add your comments below or share this article with your friends to raise awareness of this really important and possibly misunderstood issue.
Note that some of these references relate to the effects of stress in humans, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest (that I know to date) that the effect in horses would be hugely different. If you do have any information you would like to share with me you can email me [email protected]
- Cook, W.R. and Kibler, M. (2019), Behavioural assessment of pain in 66 horses, with and without a bit. Equine Vet Educ, 31: 551-560. https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.12916
- Chronic stress puts your health at risk. www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
- Stress effects on the body www.apa.org/topics/stress-body
Not referenced directly, but supported the basis for the article
- Low plasma cortisol and fecal cortisol metabolite measures as indicators of compromised welfare in domestic horses (Equus caballus) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0182257
- MiMer Centre webinar on Stress https://mimer-centre-school.teachable.com