The Importance of Routine for Horses
The importance of routine for horses cannot be stressed enough. It is one simple step all horse owners take in their day to day activities to keep their horse’s mental and physical health in tip-top condition.
As the days become shorter and the weather more dreary, is it really necessary to be rolling out of bed in the early hours, every single day, or can we let our horse’s routine slide? We investigated the importance of routine for our horses and what the effects could be if routine isn’t maintained.
Why Do Horses Need A Routine?
Horses thrive off of a routine, effecting both their mental and physical health positively. As prey animals, horses are constantly on guard for any dangers that may be just around the corner. Therefore, if owners do no enforce a structured routine, or break their routine habits, it can cause their horse great anxiety.
Having a routine in place means your horse knows what is going to happen next. This can aid sleep and rest, and in turn the ridden performance and mental well-being of your horse. Additionally, the less stress your horse is under mentally, the stronger their immunity is to fight off any potential disease or infection. It can also reduce the development of stress related illnesses, such as colic and gastric ulcers.
Not only is your day to day routine important for your horse’s health, but routine health checks by professionals should also be integrated into your horse’s lifestyle. Routine visits from the farrier are vital to maintain hoof condition and dentistry checks to keep on top of oral health are vital. Meanwhile, visits from physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists can all keep performance and comfort in check, providing prior permission from your vet.
Effects Of Having No Routine?
The main side effect of having no routine is a negative impact on stress levels. However, stress has a snowball effect on all aspects of horses’ lives, from their physical health to their performance when ridden.
Stress can manifest it’s self in the form of stereotypical behaviours, when stabled or in the field. Stereotypical behaviours are un-wanted behaviours which can cause long-term damage to the horse’s musculoskeletal system is sustained over a long period of time. Some of the most common stereotypical behaviours are; weaving, windsucking, crib-biting and box-walking. There are many theories as to why each behaviour becomes apparent in horses, and each identify different aspects of heightened anxiety in the horse. For example, some research suggests box-walking can become apparent when turnout for horse’s is reduced. Meanwhile, weaving can be an anticipatory response to feeding.
DID YOU KNOW?
Collapses are more common than you think!
Have you ever seen your horse buckle at the knee slightly, whilst dozing, then suddenly awake? This is a small collapse. Take note of any stressful changes that have occurred in your horse’s life, and make sure to keep an eye of the frequency and severity of collapses. You may need to change your routine or environment so your horse feels comfortable enough to lie down and achieve REM sleep.
When horses lack routine, their state of stress stems for their ‘fight or flight’ instinct. The lack of routine means they have to be prepared for anything, so could mean they are on high alert at all times. This state of hyper-alertness could leave horses without experiencing deep sleep for long periods of time, as they feel the need to be constantly on guard to protect themselves.
Hors’s can snooze standing up but in order to achieve a deep sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep, horses must be lying down. Although horses can go 7-14 days without REM sleep, it is still essential for memory and body function. Without REM sleep, horses become sleep deprived, causing them to become susceptible to illness, have a reduced learning capacity, and in danger of collapsing.
Much like in humans, sleep can really affect a horse ability to perform under saddle. Whether it is mental or physical fatigue from lack of sleep, or both, is unknown. However, research has found that horses that slept less during the night did not perform as well when taking part in show jumping competitions. Although no research in other discipline has been carried out, it is expected lack of sleep would have the same effect on performance.
With heightened stress levels, the occurrence of gastric problems also becomes more prevalent. Stress supresses appetite as focus on survival becomes more important. This means horses can be predisposed to gastric ulcers, from stomach acid splashing in an empty stomach, and colic, from build-ups of gas replacing where food should be!
In addition, having an unstructured feeding routine can cause horses to bolt their feeds. ‘Bolting’ feed is when a horse eats too quickly and doesn’t chew their feed properly. ‘Bolting’ feed risks choking, and predisposes to gastric ulcers and colic.
Sudden changes to what you feed your horse can also cause digestive upset. Horses build up colonies of microbes which help break down certain feed stuff. When changing feed, the microbes have to adjust in numbers, in order to cope and help digest the food. If you make large and sudden changes to your horse's diet, this can result in a lot on un-digested feed and digestive discomfort.
What Is A Good Routine?
A good routine is any routine that you can commit to. As long as you visit your horse twice a day, at similar times, carrying out similar tasks, then you should be in the clear. If you cannot commit to twice daily visits at similar times, grab a friend to share the load.
Routine health checks should also be regularly scheduled for your horse, as professionals may spot something you have not. Plus, some professionals need to carry out regular practices, such as the farrier, to maintain your horse’s health.
Any changes in routine should be made gradually for your horse. This allows them time to adapt new routines and for you to keep an eye on behaviour changes and signs your horse may be in distress. From altering their turnout to changing their diet, this all needs to be done slowly.