Are hoof problems and stress connected?

Today I realised that stress in a horse can be a major factor for hoof problems. I knew about the stress and I knew about the hooves. But I hadn’t connected the two until now.

One of my horses has often displayed stressed behaviour. He also has hoof problems. His best trick when stressed is to do Piaf in the box and wave his head in a frenzy. This mostly happens when he’s in by himself or when other horses are going out side, even when he’s not alone. The rest of the time he’s really calm. In fact he’s probably one of the easiest to ride-out as nothing seems to phase him. hoof_problems_stress

Labelling horses as stressed-out

But we’ve all seen or experienced horses that we would  easily  label “stressed out.” They sweat when it’s not hot, behave aggressively, or jiggle and whirling around their handlers. Often this abrupt behaviour comes without warning and it can be difficult to figure out why. On the other hand, we tend to assume that horses that don’t display these overt signs of anxiety are relaxed and comfortable. Additionally, many think of stress solely as an anxious response to a negative situation. Technically, stress is caused by anything that elevates the body’s energy demands, heart and breathing rates.  Even a positive experience like a happy gallop in the pasture is a “stressor.” A small amount of stress is normal; neither man nor animal can get through life without it. The body has adapted to deal with this kind of stress. But prolonged, moderate-to-severe stress is very detrimental to the horse’s health. Ricko came to us as a very sensitive stressed horse. You could say that we rescued him. Well I don’t know where he would have ended up otherwise. He’s beautiful to look. Very princely and magical. But underneath the surface there’s a lot going on.  

Where does the stress come from and what can you do about it?

Stress isn’t just a mental issue; stress has well documented physical effects in horses. The physiological process begins with an endocrine response and the release of cortisol, which is the hormone typically measured in studies on stress. Researchers at Rutgers University have been studying the effects of stress on horses for years and have produced this helpful fact sheet that summarizes their findings and details this process in the horse.

They describe the physiological effects:

“The production of stress hormones (catecholamines and glucocorticoids) eventually leads to changes in cardiovascular function, energy producing mechanisms, digestion, immunity, and reproduction … chronic stress and subsequent release of cortisol has been implicated in many deleterious conditions including aggressive behavior; decreased growth and reproductive capability; inhibition of the immune system; and increased risks of gastric ulceration, colic, and diarrhea.” The generally accepted rate of hoof growth is 1 cm monthly for a healthy horse in a moderate environment receiving good nutrition. Deviations or extremes in numerous factors can seriously affect hoof growth and its ability to heal and regenerate. A horse’s hooves suffer the most when we don’t treat their bodies well. The body is intelligent when prioritizing the allocation of nutrients (the same holds true for the human body). The skin, hair and hooves are usually the last to get nutrients, so hoof problems could be an indicator of a problem somewhere else in the body. Over the past month are so I have been working with Ricko to reduce his stress. You can read more about what I have been doing to achieve this.   rickos_hooves                      

Today I noticed that he has really nice new hoof growth. Exactly the amount I would hope for since I have been working to destress him. In general he’s much more relaxed. He’s not pulling his head up when he works. So I believe his blood flow is better and we are seeing that in the new healthy hoof growth. Happy horse and happy owner all-round.

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