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How Stressful Are Competitions for Horses?

Kentucky Equine Research Staff  | Published on 9/20/2017
How do horses handle stressful situations, such as traveling long distances, mixing with strange horses, and competing at unfamiliar venues?

One group of researchers recently asked this exact question and conducted a study to measure cortisol levels in saliva in horses during competitions away from home.

“Cortisol levels are widely used as indicators of stress. In horses, cortisol levels increase following both physical and psychological stressors such as transport, exercise, and competition,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Using saliva as a humane and noninvasive source of cortisol, the researchers collected samples from 126 dressage horses and showjumpers both at home and at three separate competitions. The relationship between the horses’ scores at the competitions and cortisol concentrations measured at each event was measured.

Key findings of the study were:

Salivary cortisol concentrations followed a diurnal rhythm with the highest concentrations measured in the morning and the lowest in the evening, both at home and in the competition environment. This is the normal cyclical rhythmic change in cortisol levels previously reported for horses.
Cortisol levels were higher at competitions than at home.
Exercise caused cortisol concentrations to increase in both showjumpers and dressage horses.
Dressage horses had higher baseline cortisol concentrations at competitions than showjumpers, suggesting that dressage horses may perceive a novel environment as more stressful.
No consistent relationship between baseline salivary cortisol concentrations and competition scores in either dressage horses or showjumpers was noted.
“In addition to fitness and stress, another factor to consider when managing athletic horses following competition is replenishing valuable electrolytes lost by sweating during competition,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for KER.

She added, “Electrolyte supplements such as KER’s Restore SR, Restore Paste, and Race Recovery deliver key electrolytes, including sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium to horses following exercise.”

Restore SR contains a proprietary slow-release mechanism that allows sodium to be released gradually into the gastrointestinal tract for sustained absorption. When sodium is delivered slowly over a period of time, more is retained and utilized by the body.

Australian horse owners should look for Restore and Restore Paste.

*Munk R1, Jensen RB2, Palme R3, et al. 2017. An exploratory study of competition scores and salivary cortisol concentrations in Warmblood horses. Domestic Animal Endocrinology. 61:108-116.