Fear & Excitability- How Emotion Can Trigger PSSM Symptoms

One thing we all know as owners of PSSM, MFM, & RER horses is that certain emotions can trigger or even bring on symptoms; but why exactly is this?

Horses & Emotion

Horses are intelligent animals and just like us they can feel emotion. Horses can feel anything from happy, depressed, angry, excited, or fearful but there are 2 emotions that play a key role in triggering PSSM, MFM, & RER symptoms and these 2 emotions are fear and excitement.

What Is Classed As Fear In Horses?

-Anything that triggers the Fight or Flight response

Fear & Excitability How Emotion Can Trigger PSSM Symptoms
“Warmblood mare Pearl showing fear in the form of nervousness at her boisterous youngster Alfee, notice her pinned ears, unhappy expression, and whites of her eyes showing”

What Is Classed As Excitement In Horses?

-Extreme Joy and happiness

Fear & Anxiety How Emotion Can Trigger PSSM Symptoms
Lad Bargold- Carter, showing excitement and exuberance while being let out in the field for the first time after a few months box rest

Are Fear And Excitement Similar?

Yes- Although fear and excitement are classed as totally different emotions what these two have in common is the response that they trigger within the body- In fact fear and excitement are so similar that in humans if you suffer from panic attacks you can trick your brain by thinking and saying aloud that you are excited instead of anxious, some people have stopped having panic attacks altogether by using this method.

What Response Does Fear And Excitement Trigger In The Body?

In both fear and excitement a horse will respond exactly like a human their hearts will begin to race, their pupils will dilate, they will breathe heavily, maybe sweat, their muscles will tense or become rigid in either fear or anticipation, and they may even quiver as adrenaline levels begins to surge.
A horse who is excited and about to start a show jumping round will have the exact same response happening in his body as that of a horse that is being chased by a lion and galloping for his life.

What Situations Can Trigger Fear Or Excitement In Domestic Horses?

There are many situations that can trigger fear or excitement in domestic horses but some of the popular ones include:

  • Shows
  • Travelling on a horsebox or trailer
  • Veterinary, farrier or dentist visits
  • Playing in the field
  • Breeding (for stallions and mares)
  • Objects or things that are spooky

What Can We Do As Owners To Help Our Horses From Becoming Triggered During Situations Of Fear And Excitement?

There are two things we can do to help our horses:

1) Make situations that you can control a routine
The first thing we can do to help our horses is to make the situations that we can control a routine- lets take travelling on a horsebox for example. When we go to a show it’s often once or twice a month if we are lucky, because it’s a rare occurrence it often makes travelling a very big deal for horses, as we pull them out of their normal routine and away from their friends to do strange things to them like plaiting, to then take them away to a completely new environment they are not as comfortable in. We have to remember that horses are very intelligent, so intelligent in fact that some horses learn as soon as travelling boots or bandages are put on that they are going to be going somewhere and become extremely anxious about it, before they have even caught sight of the horsebox.
If you have a horse who is particularly fearful or excitable about travelling you need to work with them as much as you can and make travelling routine. Put them on the horsebox and take them out on short journeys every single day, do it so often that travelling is no longer something to be feared, or get excited about, eventually horses learn that travelling on a horsebox means they will always come home every single time, and that its nothing to get worked up over, travelling soon becomes just as routine to them as going into their stable for the night.

Tex my n/p1 n/p3 was always a fantastic traveller, but when PSSM symptoms began to strike they would only affect him at shows which made him extremely anxious and nervous about the horsebox as he knew going to a show would cause him pain. Once I had Tex confidently managed I boxed him round to a local hire manege a 5 minute drive away 4 times a week, doing this cured him of all his anxiety- in the end he became so relaxed about the horsebox again he would more or less load himself, and when I opened up the ramp the other end he didn’t want to come off as he was enjoying his haynet- repetition is key.

2) Feed muscle relaxing herbs
The second thing we can do is to feed muscle relaxing herbs like Vervain, Valerian, Hops, Passion flower, or Chamomile. Muscle relaxing herbs aid in calming nerves and tension in fearful or excitable situations that we cannot control like spooking, or at play.

The muscle relaxing herb Vervain

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