May is Mental Health Month, and this is a topic that has touched many of us, especially in the last four years. 

Scientists are learning more about the brain every single day, and we now recognize that mental wellness is just one facet of our overall health. 

The same goes for our horses. Of course, we don’t take our horses to coaches or psychologists, but mental health is very important for their wellbeing.

So, first, let’s take a cue from nature. 

How Do Horses Practice Mental Wellness in the Wild?

In the wild, horses naturally engage in behaviors and live in conditions that promote their mental health. Several factors contribute to the mental well-being of wild horses, including: 

  • Natural Social Structures

Wild horses live in herds with complex social structures. These herds typically consist of a stallion, several mares, and their offspring. The social interactions within the herd, including grooming, playing, and mutual protection, provide mental stimulation, as well as emotional support.

  • Constant Movement and Foraging

Wild horses are constantly on the move, grazing over large areas. This continuous movement and foraging provide physical exercise and mental engagement, reducing the likelihood of boredom and stress. The act of foraging itself is mentally stimulating, as horses must navigate various terrains to find food and water.

  • Freedom and Space

Living in the wild gives horses ample space to roam and explore. This freedom allows them to run, play, and interact with their environment. The vast space reduces the stress that can come from confinement and allows for a more varied and stimulating environment.

  • Less Human Interference

Without human-imposed routines or restrictions, wild horses can follow their instincts and natural rhythms. This autonomy helps maintain their mental balance, as they are not subjected to the stressors that domesticated horses might face, such as confinement, unnatural feeding schedules, and limited social interaction. 

Don’t get us wrong, we are NOT saying we should not own horses. We are simply mentioning that it is our job to be aware of how we have asked them to live in domestic settings, and take the necessary steps to engage their minds in other ways. 

What Are the Signs of Mental Health Issues in Horses?

It sounds funny to call it a “mental health issue,” but it really does manifest this way! 

Stress, anxiety, and depression are all states of being that can impact horses. If you have owned horses long enough, you have witnessed all of these. 

Often, the first indicator that there may be a mental problem, involves behavioral changes. You might notice increased aggression, withdrawal, or a lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed. 

Physical symptoms like weight loss, changes in appetite, and a poor coat condition can also signal mental stress. Additionally, stereotypic behaviors such as cribbing, weaving, or stall walking often point to underlying stress or boredom.

How Can We Prioritize Our Horse’s Mental Wellbeing?

We asked Equicore Co-Founder and performance horse owner, Dr. Nicole Rombach, for her tips on keeping her horses in top mental health. 

When asked how she manages her horses’ mental health, she said:

From a management perspective, I give my horses as much time outside as possible, with access to social interaction with other horses. 

Getting to know each horse’s likes, what makes them feel good is important. For example, one of mine likes to roll immediately after work, so we go to the lunging arena. Without fail, they all like to drink as soon as they are done, so I set up a big water trough in the courtyard of the stables so they can head there as soon as I dismount. 

Other than that, my horses have 24/7 access to hay. This is still such an underappreciated, yet naturally necessary commodity. The myth that it costs more to let them eat ad lib is just that: a myth. Once they feel sated and know there will always be more, so many anxious behaviors disappear. 

I am also very aware of what my horses can and want to give on different days. They are in full training, but I shape it more to what they feel like on the day. One day might be high jump day, the next day may be more loosening in flatwork, another day it feels right to do groundwork with long-lining. 

Most importantly: once an exercise is done well, leave it be and call it a day. Sometimes training lasts 45 minutes, sometimes only 20, and then a nice hack to relax. 

When I am at shows, the first objective is to find a place where they can hand graze and roll.” 

What Are Some Other Training Techniques and Tools for the Equine Mind?

Some current buzzwords in human health include “nervous system regulation” and “mind-body training.” 

Does this apply to horses? 

Again, we asked Dr. Rombach for her thoughts. 

“The Equiband Pro System works with the horse’s nervous system. When we use this tool, we are directly changing motor patterns in the brain, and tapping into the beautiful concept of neural plasticity! This has both physical/performance effects, but I do believe that there is also a mental aspect of being comfortable in movement. 

I really believe that all training should be aimed at positive conditioning and fitness for the discipline or job. Adding a proprioceptive tool such as the Equiband Pro System goes a step further by engaging the motor control center of the brain for more specificity in muscle activation. 

Working over different surfaces, on inclines, over poles/jumps, through water, etc. are all different forms of proprioceptive input that contribute to more specific conditioning of not only strength, but also motor control.”

In summary, remember that your horse’s mental health is an important piece of their performance and wellbeing and that you are already doing a wonderful job! 

To continue making strides, provide social interaction, different training techniques/locations/etc., and offer regular turnout and as much opportunity for forage as possible. 

If your horse is dealing with a behavioral issue, ask a veterinarian and certified equine physiotherapist for assistance.