Horse Burnout Causes, Symptoms, and Strategies For Prevention

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Seventy-Four professionals from within the equine therapy industry participated in my first research project on horse burnout, which I am referencing for this article.

What do burnout, symptoms in horses look like?

Ulcers, or symptoms of ulcers, pinned ears, stomping, feet, biting at people when the saddle is being put on, or running away rather than to you in the pasture are some of the signs and symptoms of burnout.  Horses who are burnt out may also show aggressive behaviors.  In cases of running away from the handlers or showing aggressive behaviors, the horse is doing what it is designed to do when under duress; attempting to survive.  These moments are powerful opportunities to make an inquiry of the horse.  If you see aggressive behaviors or your horse running away from you, rather than being frustrated or trying to create a strategy to “fix” the behavior, you could use the opportunity to ask questions of the horse and allow the horse to give you some honest feedback. This means that the horse will need to feel safe giving that honest feedback, so responding with any kind of consequence or judgment proves to the horse he can expect this from you, and will only lead to more intense versions of the behavior which often shows up as fight or flight behavior for this prey animal.  Giving the horse an opportunity to express his or her needs is one important strategy, when the goal is having a happy, healthy, stress-free horse.

My perspective on the moment when the horse is being honest and showing his or her feelings about a situation by making choices, is that this is mother nature showing up in her most beautiful form.  We may see the horse in fight or flight mode trying to protect himself or trying to get away.  This is the horse in survival mode, which should be celebrated in my view, though, for humans this can often feel like a negative thing.  If you remove any judgment or expectation regarding how your horse shows up and just use every opportunity as an inquiry of your horse, and use this experience as an opportunity to see the beauty in the horse’s nature, you will likely have a shift in perspective which will positively impact your horse or herd.  My biased opinion is that the horse is mother nature in one of her purest forms, so I see much beauty in these experiences.

Other burnout signs are subtle and may be mistaken as horses accepting their environment or handling.  This is an important subject and a discussion that I could have at great length.

Horses who stand showing no reaction or sign of engagement with the humans are often believed to be in a positive state of mind or to be happy or relaxed, accepting of their environment or the job they’ve been given.  However, often these horses are shut down. They’ve simply accepted their fate and they’re tuning out everything around them; going inside to their happy place to be able to cope.

Some might believe, “my horse is very happy with his or her environment or with the situation”, and to find out this may be a horse that’s completely shut down or a horse that’s checking-out just to cope, well, that’s a hard pill to swallow. We love our horses so it’s a potentially difficult consideration, but it’s also very powerful information.  A horse looking relaxed that is, in fact, shut down as a sign of burnout was a very consistent piece of feedback I got from the respondents of my surveys throughout this particular research project.

Physical manifestations of stress in these horses may show up as things like ulcers, which we touched on a little bit earlier, and depleted immune systems.  So, if you observe a horse that you thought was very relaxed but you realize he’s not engaging, please consider that this horse may have shut down.  If that same horse has a history of ulcers or symptoms of ulcers, or any of the other symptoms listed above, you have even more evidence that the horse may be burnt out.  These observations can provide puzzle pieces that can help you to help that horse.

The participants in my research had important input on horses that are shut down.  So often people think horses are just super relaxed.  They may think, “my horse is happy to be there, or this horse likes this job or this horse loves having the volunteers and the and the clients all hanging around grooming or petting and interacting after a session”. That was a misconception I personally experienced as an EAGALA certified equine specialist.

People often truly believe the horse is just fine with whatever’s happening, but when you look more closely and really feel the energy of what’s going on, you’ll notice glazed over eyes or a horse that has no interest in engaging or acknowledging what’s happening around him or her. You may observe the horse looks almost as if he’s asleep, like he has turned inward so he doesn’t have to deal with what’s happening; he’s gone to his “happy place”.

Overwhelmingly consistent feedback from the respondents of my research said this was something they see regularly as a sign of burnout and people can easily make the mistake of believing a horse is happy and relaxed and continue doing the things that cause the horse to shut down.  Unintentionally, they’ll continue putting the horse in an environment where she’s not okay.

When a horse is already shut down or already burnt out, and the behavior or the human’s behavior that got them to that place continues, this has real consequences for the horse.  The potential for physical manifestations such as ulcers or depleted immune systems can be so detrimental to these horses that are perceived to be fine with their lifestyles, but are actually very, very stressed out. So long-term chronic stress is the big concern for these horses. A horse may start having consistent small health issues or lameness issues that cannot be explained by the bed or may not be understood by loving owners. This can be the result of chronic long term stress.

One consistent piece of input from respondents in my research who were horse professionals from within the equine therapy industry was the importance of giving the horse the choice whether to participate or not. Many people shared their experiences with this approach as having really positive effects on horses for long-term health.  Giving the horse a choice whether to participate in any experience can go a long way toward relieving stress or burnout and better yet, preventing it.

I am so inspired to continue this work and collaborating with others doing similar work for the horses.  We are at a transitional, evolutionary time regarding how so many humans view how to interact and care for horses.  For me, the power for horses is in sharing the results of my research and continuing to dig deeper and talk with people to continue to learn.  The more we can share and connect, the more we have the possibility of helping horses.

Visit my website  to connect, learn about me, and access my podcast “Giving a Voice To The Horses” (which is also available in the itunes and google play librarys).


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