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Chill Out! Does Your Horse Need a Calming Supplement?

In our modern world, where we provide for our horses’ every need, it’s easy to forget they are still prey animals wired to “run first, think later.”
close up of horse eye

This flight instinct is beneficial for mustangs living in the wild where danger from predators still means life and death. However, when you saddle up for a relaxing trail ride with friends, the last thing you want is a horse that looks for the “boogey man” around every corner.

Some horses are just naturally more high-strung than others. They tend to fret and act nervous in situations that might not phase a more laid-back horse. If you have a nervous horse, you’ve probably wondered if there was a way to “take the edge off” without resorting to drugs.

That’s where calming supplements appeal to many horse owners. You’ll find a variety of such supplements on the market containing a number of ingredients reported to help the horse be quieter, less reactive, and more able to focus. The supplements come in powder, pellets, granular, paste, liquid, and sometimes as wafers. Depending on the form, they can be given to horse directly or during mealtime.

All calming supplements are not created equal. What worked for your friend’s nervous gelding may not make a noticeable difference on your spooky mare. This is when you need to talk to your veterinarian and do some homework. Check out ingredients and research their effect on the horse’s body. Online reviews posted about various products can be helpful, but calming products don’t work the same in every horse and they don’t work for all horses.


Common Ingredients

You’ll find a range of ingredients in calming supplements, ranging from herbs and amino acids to vitamins and minerals.

When it comes to minerals, magnesium, zinc and calcium are common ingredients in such products. Vitamins, such as thiamine, which is one of the B-complex, is often found in calming products because it helps manage stress and has a quieting effect on the nervous system. Vitamin C has been known to help the body battle stress.

All calming supplements are not created equal...

Another popular ingredient is tryptophan, an amino acid, which isn’t produced by the horse’s body and must be obtained through his diet. The body eventually converts tryptophan to serotonin, known as an “anti-stress” hormone. Two herbs commonly found in calming products are valerian root and chamomile, both reported to soothe edginess and function as a sleep aid, although valerian is the stronger of the two and is considered a banned substance by some equine associations.

If you do decide to use a calming supplement, give it a “trial period” of one month to see how it works for your horse. If you don’t get the desired results, you can stop using that product and try another.

Don’t use more than one calming supplement at a time. There could potentially be problems with combining two, and also, if you are giving more than one, you won’t know which is working.


Look at Big Picture

Before you start your horse on a calming supplement, good horsemanship suggests that you take a careful look at your management practices. In many cases, changes in specific areas can greatly reduce your horse’s level of tension and unease.

For example, what you feed your horse has a strong influence on how calm he is—or isn’t.

“High-starch feeds can make a horse more ‘high,’ ” notes Faith Hughes, DVM, DACVS, who has been with Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital, Florida’s largest equine veterinary hospital, since 1991.

“There are many gut-related reasons to put your horse on a low-starch, high-fiber, high-fat diet if he needs calories. One main reason is that these feeds support the gut because they cause less gas as they are digested,” says Dr. Hughes.

“One of the huge side effects of this type of diet is that the horse is usually much calmer, and some undergo a fairly dramatic change. Another effect is that they have more sustained energy. If I was counseling a client on how to get their horse calm, I would suggest switching to low-starch, high-fiber, high-fat feed. Most commercial companies have one and they are in pellet form. In addition, they could try a calming product.”

Other management practices that can cause significant tension and worry include stabling routines and turn out. Your horse can be intimidated by a more dominant horse in a neighboring stall or pen, even if there is a wall or fence between them. Pay attention to how your horse interacts with those horses he’s stabled near. If his neighbor constantly pins his ears and kicks the stall wall between them, this can be quite stressful for your horse. You may need to move horses around to make for a more peaceable barn.

Likewise, watch closely when horses are turned out together. If one particular horse is always at the bottom of the pecking order, it may be necessary to turn that horse out in another group, or even alone.

You should also consider the training background of a horse that is routinely nervous. Some horses get upset because they lack a solid foundation and don’t fully understand what the rider is asking them to do. If necessary, work with a professional trainer to make sure your horse has the training he needs.

If your horse has a “vice,” such as weaving, stall walking, or cribbing, a calming product may help but it’s not a cure. Stress and boredom can create stable vices, so, for your horse’s sake, you’ll want to search out the root cause of the stress and find ways to make changes for the better to his environment and/or routine.

“Sometimes we get in a hurry to treat things with a drug or supplement, and don’t take the time to try to figure out what’s causing the problem in the horse,” notes Dr. Hughes. “The management aspect, social interaction, environment, feed—all of those things have a huge effect on the level of calmness and well-being of the horse. I think we have to take a step back and look at everything.”

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