Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home

Horse looking through stall bars

We rarely figure out what might be bothering a particular horse on a particular farm because moving him to a new facility often solves the problem. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. A couple of “horsey” friends and I were trying to figure out why some of the facilities where we have boarded seem to really be upsetting to our horses. Has any research been done regarding the “likes and dislikes” of horses regarding their homes? I have owned my horse for almost 13 years (since he was two). In that time, we have lived/boarded in three different states and numerous boarding facilities. Some places were as small as 10 stalls, some as large as 60-plus.

Interestingly, there were a couple of smaller barns where my horse seemed very uncomfortable. These were quite nice facilities–spacious stalls, indoor arena. Yet my usually level-headed guy would “lose” it in these indoor arenas. He would become spookier than usual with things that would not ordinarily cause a big disruption. A friend’s horse (an aged gelding) got so nervous at one of the barns where we were stabled that he started to “stall walk.” He actually got some type of psoriasis (skin disease) and began rubbing so badly that hair came off. This was completely abnormal for this bomb-proof and mellow old guy.

I could go on, but we never did figure out what the problems were and eventually moved to another barn. Guess what? All of the unusual behavior ceased. No more spooking, stall walking, or psoriasis! Make any sense? Nothing changed as far as diet, etc. We came to the conclusion that there are some barns that some horses just are not comfortable in, but why?

Linda, Ohio

A. What a great question about what is very likely a real phenomenon. I don’t know of any research addressing the issue. I have seen several cases like you describe, and we rarely figure out what might be bothering a particular horse on a particular farm. Quite often the most practical approach is just to move the horse back to where it was last comfortable, or to a similar setting. Since that often works, we usually leave it at that. So there always is the chance that something else might have been going on that spontaneously recovered coincidentally with the move. Nonetheless, here are some of the things we think about when it is not possible or practical to move a horse which appears to be unhappy in a new environment. I would love to hear from others.

Diet–Everything a horse eats has potential to affect behavior. The particular hay, the grain, and various additives, and certainly any of the ever-growing number of horse feed supplements can affect temperament and behavior. While we often think our horse is getting all the same diet when he moves, there likely are some differences. Many of the horses I see with these problems are fed multiple supplements. There are so many ingredients that we can’t even begin to systematically evaluate them. Often many of the supplements have been initiated in an effort to alleviate the problem. One current case is supplemented with 70-some different ingredients. My behavioral nutritionist colleagues just throw up their hands.

Sometimes we have concluded that it was the way a horse was fed that was problematic. Examples have been simple social competition and intimidation among horses in group feeding situations. Another simple problem can be that some horses appear to dislike eating from high hay racks, and will seem to eat less than when the hay is fed at floor level.

Electricity–Electric fencing and stray electricity around barns are not well studied in relation to horses. We have seen instances where electricity, either stray electricity or electric fencing, was suspected of causing spookiness in previously calm horses. I also sometimes wonder about equipment sounds that perhaps people don’t hear that might annoy a horse.

Horse social conditions–We really underestimate the impact of social interactions among horses on their behavior. We always expect everyone to fit in wherever we decide. Often they don’t.

Management history–Although it’s probably pretty rare, some horses seem to have difficulty moving from one particular type of management to another. For example, some horses which have been on a very rigid feeding and turn-out schedule might have difficulty adjusting to a less-rigid schedule. Some seem to thrive on variety, while others do better with a more rigid schedule.

Human-animal interaction style–There are research findings in cattle and pigs that the herdsman’s behavior and manner can affect all sorts of physiological and behavioral measures of well-being. One could argue that horses might be at even greater risk of such effects. Some barns seem to bring out problem behavior, and others tend to be very horse-friendly in this regard. I have a hard time being objective on this issue, because some barns drive me crazy, and I can’t help but anthropomorphize.

Neglect or abuse–It’s probably not as common as some people accuse, but we have known horses with behavior and health problems at new facilities where eventually we decided that inadequate care likely was related to the problem. For example, underfeeding or wildly erratic feeding schedules (large amounts one day, nothing for several days) often come up in such scenarios. Underfed horses might experience a phase of feeding-related aggression and/or nervousness and hyperactivity. They might begin to lunge, pin their ears, or turn and try to kick the feed bucket out of your hands. They might appear anxious when someone enters the barn–maybe start pacing or weaving at feeding time.

In one case like this, the barn folks explained that the horse had started to pace while they were feeding down the aisle. When they got to her stall, they “had to stand outside with the feed bucket and get after her to stop circling the stall.” She would get mad and lunge at the door. So then they “had to get into her till she stopped, and then keep her feed back for a couple days.” At each feeding time, they would “show her the feed and let her know she wasn’t getting any this time.” She never would quiet down, so after a couple days, they would chuck the bucket and feed over the top of the stall door, “just outa kindness.” My notes from this owner’s initial call read exactly “12-year-old mare, same owner for eight years, quiet, steady, sensible, good eater, always carried a little too much weight, moved three months ago, OK for a couple weeks, settling in, then got more nervous, started stall walking, losing weight, now thin. Beautiful new barn, clean, big stalls, excellent care, huge indoor arena, professional trainer on-site, best horses. Getting worse by the week, three vet calls, blood work, can’t find anything, barn getting tired of us, vet thinks it might be in her head, or maybe ulcers, are you an animal psychic?”

Whether or not we’ll ever figure out for sure what goes wrong with a particular horse in a particular barn, I think you’re right that a good match usually can be found. A little joke here is that we can cure most behavior problems with a little “tincture of E-field.” That’s because some of these cases of nervous, or wasting, or spooking, or stall-walking horses with histories like you describe have ended up being donated to our behavior teaching herd. Upon arrival they often hang-out in a pasture we call E-field. Within a couple weeks, the horses often are back to a state of normal contentment. They are gaining weight, looking sleek and shiny, and getting along with herd mates. Sometimes students only get to read about the “unhappy” horse.

E-field is nothing special. No hay, no grain, no supplements, no feeding schedule, no stalls, no indoor arena, no electricity, and often no close human-animal interaction for days. Just good grass, water, natural shade, and shelter.

About The Author


Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

Do Horses Respond Emotionally to Positive or Negative Whinnies?

While the horses recognize positive from negative emotions in whinnies, they might not become positively or negatively emotional as a result. | Photo: iStock

Two years ago, scientists found that horses recognize the difference between positive and negative emotions in whinnies—if those whinnies come from horses they know. The team even suggested that those whinnies might influence the emotions of the horses that hear them.

With more detailed analyses, though, the researchers now say that “contagion” effect might not be happening, at least within the context in which they were tested. While the horses do clearly recognize positive from negative emotions, they might not become positively or negatively emotional, as a result.

“Our preliminary analyses showed more arousal-related indicators during playbacks of negative whinnies from familiar horses compared to positive whinnies from those horses,” said Elodie Briefer, PhD, of the ETH Zürich Institute of Agricultural Sciences, in Switzerland.

“Our latest analyses still validate the difference in responses between positive and negative whinnies from familiar horses, but not the resulting behaviors of the listeners.”

In fact, the listeners’ behaviors were somewhat difficult to interpret, the researchers said. For example, when horses heard a positive whinny (from a familiar source), they surprisingly held their heads higher for a longer period (indicating negative emotions) than when the whinny was negative; moved their heads more (indicating higher arousal); responded faster (indicating higher arousal); and had lower respiration rates (indicating lower arousal), Briefer said.

“If there had really been emotional contagion, we would have seen more ‘positive’ behaviors, as defined in a previous study (more chewing and lower heads), during the positive playbacks and more ‘negative’ behaviors (less chewing and higher heads) during the negative playbacks,” she said.

This doesn’t mean emotion isn’t conveyed, however. The horses do perceive the difference in the emotions; it’s just not clear at this point whether those horses acquire the same emotions after hearing the caller express them, said Briefer.

Meanwhile, additional analyses indicated there’s a “sliding scale” of reaction to the whinnies’ acoustic parameters, she added. The lower the fundamental frequency, the less modulated the amplitude, and the higher the energy in the first fourth of the call, the faster the horses reacted. “It’s difficult to explain what these results mean outside of a purely scientific application,” Briefer said. “But essentially it means that the more certain whinny parameters increase or decrease, the more the horses’ behaviors change, one way or the other.”

One thing further analyses confirmed, however, is that horses do distinguish between calls from familiar and unfamiliar horses, she said. Horses showed more arousal-related behaviors (they moved more, moved their head more, held their head high for a longer duration, vocalized more, and responded faster) when hearing unfamiliar whinnies than familiar. In addition, their behaviors clearly differed between positive and negative whinnies, but only when the caller was a familiar horse. When the call came from a horse they didn’t know, their behaviors between negative and positive whinnies showed little difference.

These analyses and conclusions are based on the same study Briefer presented in 2015 at the Swiss Equine Research Day, in Avenches, in which she and her colleagues observed 18 horses during different vocalization and listening tests. The horses came from various stables, so they were familiar with some, but not all, of the participating equids.

The team recorded horses whinnying in negative situations (seeing their stablemates leave the barn) and in positive situations (seeing their stablemates return to the barn). They then played individual recordings back for the horses to hear. They also observed horses’ behavior and physiological parameters (heart rate and respiration).

“In summary, we have been able to show that horses perceive the difference between positive and negative whinnies, but it’s not yet clear if there is an emotional contagion reaction or not, at least not through the setup that we used in our study,” Briefer said.

The study, “Perception of emotional valence in horse whinnies,” was published in Frontiers in Zoology.

About The Author


Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

Ribby Race Filly

How can an owner help a ribby but successful racehorse gain weight, and what might be behind the filly’s body condition? Our source shares some thoughts.


A veterinarian might perform a physical exam to make sure an underlying condition is not causing a horse to lose weight. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Q. My question regards my American Quarter Horse Association race filly. She is a recent stakes winner and is running well. She has always been a “nervous Nellie” when stalled and greets anyone who approaches with ears laid back, although never bites and comfortably accepts treats. She is not a cribber or weaver, but is a stall walker. My concern is her weight. Her ribs show. I believe she should carry at least another 100 to 150 pounds. Her bloom is good, however. She eats well and receives pelleted grain and good alfalfa hay. My trainer gives her ulcer medication (not sure of the exact kind), Adequan, Bone Builder, and Gastroease.

Do you have any suggestions for tests or other potential treatments for her? Some of this problem could be hereditary because I’m told her sire had some of these same issues.

Jim Lynn, via e-mail

A. The first thing I would recommend you do is have your veterinarian perform a physical exam to make sure an underlying condition is not causing some of your filly’s problems. Things the veterinarian might check include blood work, including a complete blood count (CBC), chemistry panel, and fibrinogen level. Your veterinarian might also want to complete a fecal float to ensure your horse is not carrying a parasite load that might contribute to her low body weight, although from your description it doesn’t sound like this is an issue.

The ulcer medications are a good preventive plan, especially for an athletic horse that is receiving a higher amount of grain and must be stalled, but I would check with your vet that the ones you are giving are the most effective ones to use. There are some on the market that do not change the stomach’s pH level sufficiently to help ulcers.

Fillies are notorious for being more “nervous” than their male counterparts. You might find that adding a fat source to her diet will help both with weight gain (because it is a very concentrated source of calories) and her demeanor. Several studies have shown that replacing a diet that gets its calories mostly from grains with one that gets its calories from fats can have a “calming” effect on behavior.

You did not mention what brand of feed you are using, but most companies produce a feed with a higher fat content (8-10%). I would consult with your feed company’s nutritionist to see what diet will best suit your needs.

Congratulations on the success you’re had with your filly and good luck in the future.

More Evidence to Support Manuka Honey Use in Horse Wounds

Manuka honey contains biologically active compounds that appear to help horse wounds heal, particularly hard-to-treat wounds on the lower limbs. | Photo: The Horse Staff

It can take a frustrating amount of time and energy to ensure some horse wounds—especially those in challenging locations—heal. Veterinarians and owners alike are often willing to try an array of salves, sprays, and biological dressings to facilitate a positive outcome. But a researcher recently reminded equine practitioners to reach for a particular product, one that created some “buzz” a few years ago.: Honey, particularly manuka honey, can also help wound healing.

“Manuka honey comes from honeybees that collect nectar from this manuka bush’s flowers,” said Albert Tsang, BVSc (Hons.), a research student at the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science, in New South Wales, Australia, during a presentation at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Nov. 17-21, in San Antonio, Texas. “This type of honey has antibacterial and immunomodulatory effects, and recent studies support the use of manuka honey on wound healing in the equine distal (lower) limb—a notoriously challenging location to treat effectively and economically.”

Whether different types of manuka honey help healing wounds similarly and if a certain “special” ingredient exists in manuka honey compared to regular honey remain to be determined. To help answer these questions, Tsang and colleagues created full-thickness skin wounds (2.5 cm2) on eight horses’ cannon bones. They treated the wounds with manuka honey, multi-floral honey, or a saline control.

The team found that wounds treated with manuka honey healed faster than those treated with either generic honey or saline. Specifically, healing times were 90.78, 100.3, and 101.36 days, respectively.

“It is possible that processing using heat of generic honey may have inactivated some of the biologically active molecules in honey that contribute to wound healing,” he said.

Tsang also noted that the clinical effects on healing naturally occurring wounds caused by trauma and that were contaminated (as wounds occurring in the field often are) might actually be even better than those observed in the current study. The underlying reason for this difference, however, remains unclear.

The researchers’ next step involves isolating manuka honey’s bioactive constituents with the goal of further improving equine wound healing.

About The Author


Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she’s worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

Pilot Study Addresses Effects of Rider Weight on Equine Performance

Four riders of similar ability but different sizes rode each of six horses in the animal’s usual tack and performed a set pattern of exercises comprising mainly trot and canter. This rider was classified as “moderate.”  | Courtesy of the Animal Health Trust

Results of a new pilot study on the effects of rider weight on equine performance show that high rider-to-horse body weight ratios can induce temporary lameness and discomfort. In simple terms, if the rider is excessively heavy for the horse in question it can have a negative impact on the performance of the horse.

Ultimately the study should help with the development of guidelines to help all riders assess if they are the right weight for the horse or pony they intend to ride to enhance both equine welfare and rider comfort and enjoyment.

“While all the horses finished the study moving as well as when they started, the results showed a substantial temporary effect of rider weight as a proportion of horse weight,” said study leader Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust’s Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K.

“The results do not mean that heavy riders should not ride but suggest that if they do they should ride a horse of appropriate size and fitness, with a saddle that is correctly fitted for both horse and rider.

“We must remember that this is a pilot study—further work is required to determine if horse fitness, adaptation to heavier weights, and more ideal saddle fit will increase the weight an individual horse can carry,” she added. “This should help us further in our quest to develop guidelines for optimum rider-to- horse body weight ratios.”

As the average human weight and height continues to increase there is growing debate about relative rider-to-horse sizes, with riding school horses epitomizing the variety of weights of rider that a single horse could be exposed to. Numerous inter-related aspects are involved with the horse-and-rider combination including horse age, his fitness and muscle development, his back length, and presence or absence of lameness. The rider’s skill, fitness, balance, and coordination are important factors, as is the fit of the saddle to both the horse and rider. The type, speed, and duration of work and the terrain over which the horse is ridden must also be considered.

To date little research has been conducted on the effects of rider weight on equine welfare and performance. To address the shortfall World Horse Welfare, the Saddle Research Trust, the British Equestrian Federation, and a number of other organizations helped to fund the pilot study carried out last summer.

The study, “The influence of rider to horse bodyweight ratios on equine gait and behaviour: a pilot study,” which was presented March 8 at the National Equine Forum, in London, U.K., assessed gait and behavioral responses in six horses ridden by four riders of similar ability but different sizes. The researchers weighed the riders in their riding kit and subsequently categorized them as being light, moderate, heavy, and very heavy. The team also calculated the riders’ body mass index (BMI), which divides an adult’s weight by their height squared and the score is used to assess healthy weight.

Each rider rode each horse in his usual tack and performed a set pattern of exercises comprising mainly trot and canter. The researchers assessed gait, horse behavior, forces under the saddle, the response to palpation of the back, alterations in back dimensions in response to exercise, heart and respiratory rates, salivary cortisol levels, and blink rate for each combination.

The researchers ultimately abandoned the riding tests for the heavy and very heavy riders, predominantly because of temporary horse lameness. This was likely to have been induced by body weight rather than BMI, given that the heavy and moderate riders had similar BMIs, both being classified as overweight, yet only one of the moderate rider’s tests had to be abandoned.

The team also applied an ethogram Dyson developed specifically to assess behavioural markers which could reflect pain in ridden horses. The scores which could reflect pain were significantly higher in the horses when ridden by the heavy and very heavy riders.

The study also raised the issue of rider height and saddle fit. The owner of one of the test horses had a similar body weight-to-horse body weight ratio to the heavy rider and was of similar weight, but significantly different in height (157 centimeters and 185.5 centimeters, or 5.1 feet and about 6 feet, respectively). This large difference in height has major potential implications for saddle fit for the rider and consequently the rider’s position and weight distribution. The taller rider sat on the back of the cantle, overloading the back of the saddle and making it more difficult to ride in balance, with the heel being in front of a vertical line between the shoulder and hip.

“These pilot results are certainly not surprising but are very significant in adding vital evidence to inform an appropriate rider-to-horse weight ratio,” said Roly Owers, MRCVS, chief executive of World Horse Welfare. “It is common sense that rider weight impacts equine welfare however many might not fully understand or recognize this. What is desperately needed is basic guidance to help riders identify a horse or pony that is right for them and this research is a vital step in that direction.”

World Horse Welfare, the Saddle Research Trust, Frank Dyson, British Equestrian Federation, British Horse Society, Pony Club, Polocross, The Showing Council, The Showing Register, The Society of Master Saddlers, Riding for the Disabled, British Eventing, British Dressage, the British Horse Foundation, the Worshipful Company of Saddlers, and Endurance GB supported the study.

Bute vs. Firocoxib: Which NSAID Results in More Severe Gastric Ulcers?

Bute vs. Firocoxib: Which NSAID Results in More Severe Gastric Ulcers?

Owners and veterinarians should consider the potential impacts of these changes when administering NSAIDs to their horses and limit duration of use to prevent or limit their impact.

Photo: iStock

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the second-most frequently used drug class in horses after dewormers. Veterinarians prescribe them for a wide range of issues ranging from post-surgical recovery to orthopedic issues. While they’re invaluable for managing horses’ pain, one of their side effects is gastric ulcers.

A group of researchers from Texas A&M University recently compared two types of NSAIDs’ effects on gastric ulceration in horses. Lauren M. Richardson, DVM, a resident in large animal surgery at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, presented their findings at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 17-21 in San Antonio, Texas.

But first, let’s review how NSAIDs work.

These drugs work by reducing prostaglandins–chemicals in the body that promote inflammation, pain, and fever. Prostaglandins are produced by enzymes called cyclooxygenases (COX), of which there are two main types: COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is a constitutive enzyme, meaning that it is “on” most of the time, performing functions such as protecting the stomach lining and promoting blood clotting. COX-2, on the other hand, is an inducible enzyme produced under certain circumstances in response to cytokines (inflammatory mediators), resulting in inflammation, pain, and fever.

When veterinarians administer NSAIDs that block prostaglandin formation, stomach acid can damage the stomach tissue, potentially causing gastric ulcers. Fortunately, COX-2-selective NSAIDs exist that only block COX-2 prostaglandin production. However, we don’t know whether these COX-2-selective NSAIDs actually cause less gastrointestinal (GI) injury than the nonselective NSAIDs.

Richardson’s team compared the effects of firocoxib (a COX-2-selective NSAID) and phenylbutazone (a nonselective NSAID) on gastric ulceration in adult horses. They used fecal myeloperoxidase (MPO, a protein released during acute inflammation) as a marker of lower GI tract injury.

They randomly assigned 10 adult horses to one of each of the treatment groups (firocoxib administered at 0.1 mg/kg once a day or phenylbutazone administered at 4.4 mg/kg once a day) and five horses to a control group that received a placebo treatment. The team administered treatments for 10 days and collected fecal samples on Days 0, 10, and 20. They also scoped the horses for gastric ulcers on Days 0 and 10.

In looking at the results, horses in both treatment groups had significantly higher squamous gastric ulceration scores (in the upper region of the stomach) than the horses in the control group at Day 10. Similarly, both treatments resulted in significantly more ulcers in the glandular (bottom) portion of the stomach than in controls. However, said Richardson, on Day 10 horses receiving phenylbutazone had significantly more severe glandular ulcers than the horses given firocoxib.

She also noted that fecal MPO increased with both treatments but was only statistically significant in the horses given phenylbutazone. Because MPO is derived from neutrophils, the type of white blood cell involved in NSAID-induced intestinal injury in other species, these results suggest that GI disease caused by administration of NSAIDs is neutrophil-driven in the horse, said Richardson.

So while both phenylbutazone and firocoxib induced GI inflammation and injury, glandular ulcers were more severe and fecal MPO levels greater in the horses receiving phenylbutazone. These results suggest that firocoxib’s effects were less severe, said Richardson.

About The Author


Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.