Stress is an important factor in the development of gastric ulcers, along with feed not adapted to the physiology of the stomach. It follows then that the reduction of stressful situations is essential for prevention and at the same time promotes the animal’s well-being. This aspect therefore requires a closer look. The following potential stressors were discussed earlier. Horses are social animals who enjoy the companionship of other horses. Separation through a move or sale can potentially bring on stress. The opposite can also become a problem – when horses who do not like each other are forced to live together, instead of simply avoiding each other as they would in the wild.
We must therefore know and take into account the natural behaviour and characteristics of horses. Amongst English-speaking equestrians, animal handling and horsemanship are common terms which are helpful in finding recommendations for the stress-free handling of horses. Examples include the guidelines of the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (afac.ab.ca) and the Alberta Equestrian Federation, as well as "Techniques for Safely Handling Horses" published by Oklahoma State University.
5 things to consider when handling horses:
1. Horses are flight animals. In panic situations, even well-trained animals are not easily controllable.
2. The way one approaches a horse is key. Horses cannot see directly in front of their noses or directly behind them. It is recommended that one approach from the side, preferably focusing on the shoulder, to avoid fright and injuries from bolting or kicking.
3. Stress-free handling of flight animals also includes avoiding sudden loud noises – this includes the tone of voice you use when interacting with your horse. Avoid raising your voice; instead, communicate using calm speech. This way, the animal will be aware of who is present in its environment. People working with the animals should also avoid making sudden, hectic movements.
4. Horses are very sensitive to touch.
5. Safety – the aim of horsemanship and stress-free handling of horses is not only to avoid stress for the animal, but also to provide a safe environment for both humans and animals. This starts with correct positioning: see point 2.
Your horse's memory – how horses perceive situations
In addition to the goal of a safe environment for humans and animals, stress-free handling of horses and ponies also means making sure that the animal’s everyday experiences are positive ones.
If a horse should have negative associations with loading from being yelled at and from people hectically running around it, this will also have a negative effect on later loading attempts. In other words, the horse will always associate this activity with stress in the future, whereby not only are situations stored in the horse's memory, but objects as well.
A horse’s memory is therefore very specific – it could even be called photographic. Temple Grandin likes to talk about a horse that had been mistreated by a man wearing a black cowboy hat. This specific article – the black hat – was burned into the horse's memory precisely in connection with these bad experiences, which is why the animal later had anxious reactions to completely different people who also happened to be wearing black cowboy hats. Light-coloured hats or baseball caps, on the other hand, did not trigger a negative reaction.
One should also remember that horses, as typical creatures of habit, like to have fixed daily routines. Feeding, not surprisingly, is one of the most important times of the day. A lot of stress can be avoided through punctual feeding at regular times. Later articles will deal with the physiological and preventive relevance of feeding in connection with gastric ulcers.