Horse Show Anxiety? Relief begins at Home.
Quite commonly horses exhibit anxiety when arriving at the show grounds. Many times I see some horses maintain a level of stressful anxiety through out the duration of the show. I see this at hunter/jumper shows, dressage shows, breed shows and western shows. We have taken a prey animal away from its herd and are asking them to perform, in an un natural way, under very stressful circumstances and deal with rider anxiety transference too.
We cannot change the prehistoric nature of Equus. They are wired to be weary of strange places and events, and to seek a herd for protection. They are naturally claustrophobic, so the small stalls are an issue to over come as well.
We can however, use the natural tendencies and functions to help alleviate some show anxiety but it starts way before the show date. It starts at home.
First some facts of how Horses olfactory system works.
The olfactory center is in the limbic center of the brain , along with and situated very closely to the memory center. This is why sometimes a certain smell will remind us of either a pleasant or unpleasant memory. It is nearly instantaneous. This is true of horses too. Unlike humans who use both nostrils at the same time when offered an oil to smell, horses will use one nostril at a time. Some holistic practitioners feel that the side the horse chooses to use first indicates the nature of the issue. For instance if he smells with his left nostril, the smell will be detected, processed and recognized by the right side of the brain , suggesting the issue is of an emotional bases. If he chooses the right nostril first, the smell will be detected and processed through the left side of the brain indicating a physical bases. Using this knowledge that smells are associated with memory we can use conditioning at home to help with anxiety at a show.
Usually horses are very relaxed during grooming. Not only is it pleasant, the attention they are getting from the leader of the herd, YOU, in view of their pasture mates indicates a level of importance and helps with confidence. A horse preparing for a show should be groomed daily, to help with confidence and condition their coat, mane, tail and hoofs. This is a wonderful opportunity to CONDITION their mind and emotions using aromatherapy.
Before you begin grooming, offer your horse a calming oil single note or blend to smell. If he refuses, try another. Never force an oil on the horse. Never put an oil directly in the nose or on the muzzle. This practice by some “traps” a horse as he cannot escape the smell. Let him smell it and once you receive “yes” signals, add some carrier oil to that essential oil and gently rub behind the jaw, the poll, crest, and along either side of the spine.
You can also add 5 drops to 8 oz of witch hazel in a spray bottle and gently spray it on a wipe and gently clean the face or lightly spray across the back down the spine.
Proceed to start the grooming process. Toward the end, you can sprits a bit of the chosen essential oil/witch hazel combination on a body brush and brush all over using gentle long strokes from front to back top to bottom.
Do this every time you groom at home. Soon the horse will associate the oil with a pleasant relaxing experience and a mental calmness. Start weeks in advance of the show date.
If the horse shows difficulty or anxiety at the show, sprits a bit of the same essential oil used at home in the air, or a drop on your hand for him to smell, or lick. The smell will remind him of grooming at home in the safety of his barn or stall.
I know this sounds a bit “new age”, but really it is not. It is a scientific theory first documented by Pavlov in Russia in the 1890’s. Most people have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. The dogs were conditioned to salivate when presented with certain stimuli starting with food. You can use the same principals with the horse.
It will take a bit of practice and due diligence on the part of the person grooming to figure out what works for that individual animal. Also they may choose different oils at different times depending on their needs that day, so be prepared to have two or three choices available at the show.
Some possible oils to try according to Catherine Bird an Aromatherapist in Sydney Australia are: *
Lavender: will soothe and nurture a frazzled horse. If anxiety has gone to the stage of a temper tantrum, you may choose lavender
Sweet Orange: provides self assurance
Basil, Lemon and Cypress: provide focus and increases the ability to keep your horses mind on task
Patchouli: will provide solid grounding and keep your horse aware of his feet
My personal favorites along with the recommendations above are:
Ylang Ylang, which can help a moody mare relax and also alleviate depression as it helps with the release of endorphins in the brain
Clary Sage: Also a mood enhancing oil
Geranium: Very calming especially for claustrophobic horses on stall rest.
Vetiver: a Calming and grounding oil
Grapefruit: helps with performance stress
Bergamot: lifts the spirits.
Remember each horse is an individual with unique needs and responses. Always let them choose the oil to work with. Note which oil they choose at home and observe what reactions and issues they exhibit, that day that may have affected their choice. Remember this for the show days and offer the oil that seemed to help them at home. Remember too, that more is not better with aromatherapy….less is best.
Have a great show season!
*Catherine Bird Horse Scents: Making sense with your Horse Using Aromatherapy
* An excerpt from “Calming Aromatherapy for Fear and Anxiety” from Natural Horse Magazine.