These past few weeks with the COVID-10 pandemic have changed everyone’s lives in different ways. Many of us are working from home, we are practicing social distancing, and we are only going out when necessary. One of the necessary places we need to go, however, is to the barn- we need to take care of our horses. That being said, stables in California, anyway, have stopped all lessons, and stables are requesting owners come and stay only as long as they need to in order to care for their horses and leave. Some stables are requesting that owners no longer ride at all, but exercise their horses on the ground. Things have changed for everyone- whether it be for a few weeks or a few months, but we have to acknowledge that what has been normal is no longer.
Hopefully soon we will get back to something that closer resembles what we consider normal, but in the meantime, things are different, and our stress levels are higher as a result. Our schedules are different- many people are visiting the barn at different times than they usually would because they are working from home. Our time at the barn is different- the focus is on getting work done as opposed to enjoying the time there. Because there are no lessons, at larger stables there are fewer people riding, and as a result fewer people at the barn. Even the time we spend at the barn is different- the people no longer congregate and hang out, but give each other tense smiles as we pass by with our horse.
Although it may not seem on the surface that things are that much different for our horses, we need to give them credit for the very sensitive creatures that they are: They know that something is different. They know that things have changed. They know we are more stressed, and they don’t know why.
Horses are prey animals, which means that they are much more sensitive to changes in their environment, as those changes can mean a predator is advancing, or another life-or-death situation may occur. In a herd, if the lead mare or stallion senses danger, their body tenses up, and they are visibly on alert. When the lead horses appear stressed or hyper-alert, these mannerisms convey to the rest of the herd that they should be ready to flee in case the threat is apparent. That being said, the rest of the herd can relax to a certain extent if there is no change in the lead horse’s behavior- if the lead horse doesn’t tell the herd to flee, they can continue to graze or can relax.
People often find that horses can help them reduce their stress, and on a case-by-case basis, this can be true. Horses are sensitive to people’s moods, but people are sensitive to the horses as well. When we go to the barn, we may be stressed, but our time at the barn helps us relax. If you think of it as a herd dynamic, if we are the lead horse, when our horse first sees us, our stressed attitude can put them on alert, but as we relax as we spend more time at the barn, our attitude and reduced stressed conveys to our horse that there is no danger.
The issue with a large-scale pandemic like COVID-10, however, means that horses are faced with any number of stressed people on a given day. Eventually, the heightened tension can affect the horses and can cause them to be stressed out as well. Although there is only so much we can do individually, we do need to acknowledge that our stress can cause them stress. There are ways to help your horse adjust to what is our current new normal:
#1: Create a new (old) routine
If your routine has changed, this is going to affect your horse. Something as simple as coming out during the day versus coming out at night changes your horse’s routine. There is nothing inherently good or bad with this, but acknowledge that this change can cause some stress. If possible, find a way to reestablish some sort of routine with your horse, so they know when to expect you. Try to come out at the same time everyday and stay for a similar amount of time everyday.
Try not to change what you do with him. If you take him out of the stall and give him a quick groom before turning him out, continue to do that. If you turn him out first, then groom him- do that. Horses LOVE routine, so the more routine you can establish- or reestablish, the happier he will be. Routine helps to let him know that his world is still safe.
#2- Be aware of your stress level
Before you get out of the car and walk to the barn, take a minute to think about your stress level and focus on how emotionally healthy you are at that moment. Since many stables are telling people only to be at the barn for a short amount of time, we may feel rushed- it is important, however, that we do not try to rush our horses. When we are rushed or stressed, we also get short-tempered, and we can take that out on our horses, which isn’t fair. Be aware of yourself when you are at your barn to ensure your actions and reactions are appropriate.
#3- Remember that your horse is still a horse
Horses don’t follow politics or the daily news. They don’t know what’s going on down the street, much less across the world. They have more immediate concerns, and while we are in our heads worrying about those things, they are focused on what is most important: themselves. They need food, exercise and basic care, and we owe it to them to ensure that they get that.
People who work from home often have to get up very early in order to feed their animals before getting on the road to start their daily commute. Working from home allows them to sleep in a little… but this doesn’t meant the horses do! Your horse knows what time it is- it’s breakfast time (or lunch time… or dinner time…)! Be sure not to change their feed routines if possible to help prevent stress and colic.
I know a lot of people aren’t riding right now- some of the stables are frowning on any riding, and others argue that a freak riding accident will take away a much-needed bed from another person in the ER. Horses, however, are still large, athletic animals who need a lot of exercise and some continue to need training. Whether you are riding your horse or walking your horse or longeing your horse- your horse needs exercise. If your horse is part of a lesson program but there are no longer lessons, this is going to be more difficult, so you may want to talk with your trainer to determine how to get your horse the exercise he needs.
It’s springtime, and every horse owner knows- your horse also needs grooming to help get rid of his old winter coat. Make sure your horse gets groomed just as he would be if there were no pandemic.
In addition, keep your appointment with your farrier. Your horse needs his feet trimmed or his shoes reset. As far as veterinarian appointments, if they are necessary, keep them. If they can be pushed back a few months, then call and ask if that would be better. I know that I usually have the horses vaccinated in April or May, but we are going to have them vaccinated this year in June… I have the luxury of not having to answer to a boarding stable, however, and your stable might require the vaccinations- so get them done.
One of the best things horses teach us is that we need to muscle through and get through life. Sometimes life is more difficult than other times. Sometimes, like right now, it’s stressful and uncertain, and our horses help us by grounding us and helping us live in the moment. At the same time it’s important to be aware of how we can affect our horses both positively and negatively, and we owe it to our equine friends to help ensure that they feel safe and secure.