Ah, Winter...Days of long shadows, when the sun lies low in the sky, snow blanketing the pastures, and frigid overnight temperatures. Limited sunshine and colder temperatures can make anyone feel like curling up in bed rather than facing the outside world -- including our horses. According to experts, horses, like humans, can get depressed.
Researchers have found there may be an equine form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) -- depression that occurs as the days grow shorter. A lack of natural sunlight during the winter months can cause a biochemical imbalance in the brain and bring on SAD, a condition also known as the winter blues.
According to some studies, treating horses with light therapy could be effective in reducing these winter blues. Nerve centers in the brain that control moods are stimulated by light, which causes the production of serotonin, a vital chemical in the brain that affects a range of body functions, including mood. By using a light box, horses are given the dose of daylight they seem to be craving, and they begin to produce the vital chemical that once again can lift their mood and give them back their energy, resulting in happier horses who are easier to ride.
Some horses exhibit stress and lack of impulsion and performance. Stress and boredom may lead to vices such as weaving, box walking, and cribbing -- actions that are less apparent when a horse is outside in a sunny field.
So, how can you recognize if your horse is feeling blue?
- Poor eating
- Dull eyes
- Ears not alert
- Unusual aggressiveness
- Unusual passivity
- No interest – stands at back of stable
- Stands and actually looks depressed – head down etc.
- Diminished performance
Depression is a known symptom of specific conditions such as Cushing’s, Strangles and Equine Infectious Anemia. Consulting your Vet should be your number one action to ensure your horse is not suffering from any of these serious conditions before you attempt to address the problem.
Even if your horse is not suffering from the more severe form of SAD, you can do several things to help your horse stave off the winter blues.
Bundle up, saddle up, and hit the trails. There is no better way to get to know your horse, get good exercise and commune with nature than to trail ride. It is relaxing, stress relieving and can do wonders for the emotional well-being of your horse. A leisurely ride along a scenic path can be a healing time that helps your horse face the world in a better frame of mind.
Winter is the perfect season to see just how much additional training our horses need for the discipline we ride. Groundwork is the foundation of a well-trained and behaved horse. Many natural horsemanship trainers, such as Pat Parelli, stress the importance of building a solid relationship based on trust and leadership on the ground first. The Parelli concept of learning the horse’s language, developed as the Seven Games(tm), teaches you how to be your horse’s natural leader. It’s a great way to exercise your horse mentally, emotionally, physically and naturally.
MAXIMIZE ARENA TIME
A long cold winter indoors can get anybody down. Maintaining a regular riding schedule, even a modified one, is important for the physical and mental health of you and your horse. Horses who are allowed ample exercise are mentally content. They rarely develop vices such as pawing, stall kicking or wood chewing, which are often results of boredom.
The best thing to work on in the winter is transitions. Transitions really help to supple, balance and get your horse moving off his hindquarters. Riding transitions will keep you and your horse in shape without having to do too much work.
Horses get aches and pains, just as humans do, but they can’t use words to make their complaints known. A massage will be both physically and psychologically relaxing for your horse and can help create a bond and mutual trust between you. Massage therapy can help alleviate muscle fatigue and spasms, reducing your horse’s risk of pulling or tearing muscles. It can help your horse be more relaxed by relieving tension, improving his circulation, and reducing the risk of over using other muscles that compensate for any discomfort.
There are many good reasons to use both acupressure and acupuncture, especially for chronic musculoskeletal conditions and diseases. These techniques focus on the vital life force energy called "chi" and seek to balance the energy at specific points on meridians, or channels of energy, and to harmonize the body systems.
The most obvious difference between the two disciplines is acupressurists rely on the use of hands, fingers, and elbows, to stimulate specific acupoints on the horse, while acupuncturists use very thin needles that are quickly inserted into the skin at a particular acupoint, leaving the needle to perform the necessary clearing of an energy blockage or stagnation. Acupuncture must be done by a professional. Both techniques often reveal some interesting clues about your horse’s overall state of health. Treatments release endorphins involved in pain reduction, building the immune system and calming the mind. Horses love it and will lick, chew or yawn when the energy has shifted.
If every time you see your horse you drag him out to do work, your horse will get pretty tired of seeing you. Doing nothing with your horse in the barn, paddock or pasture can be a great opportunity to feel safe, confident and relaxed together. You can sit and read a book, catch up on work or just enjoy the scenery. By taking the pressure off and letting your horse just be a horse for a while you will create trust, build his curiosity, and get him interested in you again.
Instead of continually asking your horse to do things, spend undemanding time with him by offering a few quiet moments together. This will let your horse know that you truly care and will strengthen your relationship by helping both of you beat the winter blues.
MORE ABOUT PARELLI'S PORCUPINE GAME
A great game to play with your horse, in his stall when it’s cold outside, is Parelli’s game #2, the Porcupine Game, which teaches your horse to yield from steady pressure. Use this game to move the front and hind end away, push sideways, and lower your horse’s head. “In order to develop a partnership with your horse, you need to help him overcome his fearful, defensive reactions to pressure and learn how to yield and move away from it,” says Pat Parelli. “The better your horse yields from pressure, the easier he will be to handle on the ground and when ridden.”
The 4 Principles to the Porcupine Game
Intention - Your look, your life and your forward body language will help you clearly convey your intention: “Move away from my oncoming pressure.”
Steady Pressure - Ask your horse to move by touching your horse anywhere, gently spreading your fingers and pressing against your horse’s skin.
Four Phases of Friendly Firmness...and Instant Release - There are four phases to applying pressure. The first is the lightest possible and the fourth is whatever it takes to be effective. The INSTANT the horse responds by moving away, or even tries to respond, immediately release all the pressure!
Rub-Press-Rub - Every time you prepare to impress a horse with your press, you need to rub him first. After you’ve pressed and he responds, you need to rub that spot again. This is especially important in the teaching stages.
Carolyn Crew is the newest member of the Holistic Horse family. She has over 20 years of sales, marketing and design experience in television, print, web and interior design. She is a Parelli Level 3 student and hopes to educate more readers about the horse-human relationship and the spiritual, mental and emotional sides of their horses.