Tranquilizers, whether drug- or herbal-based, are no substitute for proper training or correct matching of horse to rider and horse to activity. Still, some horses do have behavior patterns that interfere with an otherwise perfect match.
Situations also arise where nervous vices mysteriously appear or a stallbound horse gets overly on edge. These horses sometimes need help, but chemical tranquilizers may be overkill. Enter herbal supplements.
In doing this field trial, we weren’t interested in ways to tranquilize a horse. Anyone who is riding a horse that is too strong, too energetic, too eager, too forward for the job they want done, or for their level of riding expertise needs a new horse.
We also don’t want anything that influences motor coordination or that makes the horse “doped.” We wanted the horse alert, responsive and eager but able to concentrate.
We included in this field trial horses with problems that were not related to performance. The horses included:
Racehorses who were normally high-spirited under routine daily circumstances but became nervous, agitated and difficult to control in the paddock.
Horses stallbound for injuries who were overactive, with pacing and stall-walking vices, and two of which were flank/side-biting.
Horses that weren’t nervous or hyperactive in general but were easily startled and would shy or startle easily when being ridden.
Horses who were overly aggressive in a field situation.
Horses that were otherwise calm and normal but had irrational “phobias” to shipping or clippers.
Several mineral and vitamin deficiencies or excesses can affect nervous-system function, especially the B vitamins.
Although studies vary as to whether or not thiamine (vitamin B1) “calms” horses, vets have used it intravenously as a non-drug alternative for calming for at least a half century, which may make thiamine the oldest “natural” tranquilizer in modern-day use.
Vitamin B6 has a long history of use combating anxiety in humans, especially anxiety, depression and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Magnesium and calcium share many functions in the nervous system. Deficiencies of magnesium are far more common, however, and the blood level of this key ion is not as closely regulated as calcium. Like vitamin B6, magnesium has been used to help symptoms in a wide variety of disorders and is especially helpful for anxiety and PMS.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that influences brain function. It was a popular “tranquilizing” and sleep-inducing supplement in people until problems arose with a painful muscle condition called eosinophilic myositis and it was pulled off the market.
Taurine, another amino acid often incorporated into behavior supplements, helps maintain the normal structure of cell membranes and their receptors. However, no scientific studies suggest its usefulness as a type of dietary supplement otherwise.
Not surprisingly, the pharmacology of most “calming” herbals has been found to resemble either the action of Valium-like sedatives or Prozac-like anti-depressant/anti-anxiety drugs that influence serotonin levels in the brain. The two heaviest hitters in the herbal category are most definitely kava kava and valerian root.
The most potent kava kava products are methanol extracts of the leaves, with potency dropping as other plant parts are mixed in. Kava kava is also a frequently abused herb in Pacific island cultures and among the native populations of Australia. It’s reported to have some narcotic-like effects, and use can be addictive. There is a tremendous difference in effect depending on the individual product, however.
Valerian root causes increased levels of a brain chemical that has sedating effects that interact with many other neurotransmitter systems.
Although neither kava nor valerian is reported to cloud thinking, the major use for both is in inducing sleep. High doses of either one can actually cause mania/excitement.
Each horse in the trial was tried on at least two products from different categories. No supplementation was used between products for three weeks or more, and the horse was observed to see if the behavior returned. It always did, usually in less than three weeks.
Magnesium: We had excellent results in all our problem categories with magnesium supplementation in the range of five to 10 grams/day. While results did vary depending on the problem, magnesium had a noticeable beneficial effect that was rated from “good” to “excellent” in respect to nervousness/anxiety, spooking, and over-reaction to sound or touch, making it a top choice.
Aggressive horses were less easily provoked, although they would still bite or kick when they were. Flank biting and phobias didn’t respond. Magnesium carries no long-term side effects, and it doesn’t drug the horse or change his chemistry in any way.
Human supplements can be ground up or you can buy magnesium oxide in bulk bags from a feed mill or other supplier. If the horse isn’t receiving grain or doesn’t accept powders well, we found Quiessence pellets effective and palatable.
Thiamine (B1) And Vitamin B6: Thiamine and vitamin B6 tended to be effective in the same horses that responded to magnesium, although magnesium gave better results. The combination of thiamine, B6 and magnesium was particularly effective in horses that showed diarrhea when stressed, and we liked the combinations in At-Ease and Ex-Stress best. One of the poor-shipping horses did much better on this combination. He was obviously still nervous about the whole idea but loaded without help and scrambled less.
L-Tryptophan: Tryptophan gave the best results in horses that became belligerent/pushy, which included all the racehorses that acted up in the saddling paddock. Even our gelding that liked to pick fights responded the best to tryptophan. A single dose of tryptophan prior to a race wasn’t as predictable as feeding it for at least three days ahead of time.
Our stall-confined horses also responded well to tryptophan, although we’re not particularly comfortable with feeding tryptophan long term.
We found a single dose of four grams three hours prior to competition (we used Easy Going) also had aggression-modifying effects, but results were better with the multiple-day program. Best results were seen after three days use, minimum daily dose of two grams tryptophan, the last dose given about three hours before the competition (check rules).
Kava Kava And Valerian Root: Every horse who received kava kava- or valerian-based products showed noticeable changes in their behavior when in the stall. With the valerian-only, it took about a week to see a difference, while with valerian combination products, some calming was noted in a few days, more noticeable after 10 days to three weeks.
The kava-based products kicked in faster, and the effects increased as time went on. However, one horse on kava became agitated after 2.5 weeks on the product. When kava was stopped, agitation disappeared.
While the horses were calmer, or even “dopey” in their stalls, the effects didn’t necessarily hold when the horse was stimulated. Horses that were hard to handle in the paddock or spooky seemed to snap out of the effects of kava kava or valerian entirely under those conditions.
Although we got good results with kava, because of its greater potential for adverse effects and a recently issued FDA warning that use in some people may be associated with liver abnormalities, we would try a valerian-based product first.
We especially liked Equilite’s Equine Relax Blend, where the combination of valerian with milder but more-rapid-acting herbs produced results quickly with peak effect in about two weeks. We found Valerian-Free Relax Blend, Earth Lodge Calming Formula and Serenity effective for milder cases.
We can’t stress often enough that a horse that is too much for the rider to handle needs professional training or a new home. The horse that simply refuses to work with you may have “issues,” but the solution is retraining, not giving him an herbal calmative product. There’s a big difference between a horse that adamantly refuses to cooperate and one that’s easily startled by unexpected stimuli or gets highly excitable, but in conditions where you can understand why.
However, when you need help, first try adding magnesium oxide or thiamine alone to the horse’s diet. If this doesn’t work, we’d consider a commercial product that combines these ingredients.
Of the products we tried, we found both At-Ease Megadose and Ex-Stress produced excellent, solid results in our field-trial horses and both cost about 50?? per recommended serving size.
However, Peak Performance’s Ex- Stress gets the nod as our overall favorite calmative, since you have leeway to adjust the magnesium dose while still getting effective levels of the B vitamins.
If your nervous horse also gets aggressive, we suggest you try either tryptophan alone, as is found in Horses Prefer Tryptophan Plus gel, or in combination with magnesium and B vitamins, a combination we like in At-Ease Megadose.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Deciding About Calmatives.”
Click here to view “Ingredients And Typical Effects.”
Click here to view “More Is Not Better.”
Click here to view “Equine Calming Products.”
Click here to view “Best Bets In Calmatives.”
Contact Your Local Tack Shop Or – Earth Lodge Herbals through Drop In The Bucket www.dropinbucket.com, 888/783-0313; Emerald Valley Botanicals, www.emeraldvalleybotanical.com, 888/683-8262; Equilite, www.equilite.com, 800/942-5483; Equine America/Nature’s Own, www.equine-america.com, 800/838-7524; Equine Gold, www.equinegold.com, 800/870-5949; Equine Science, www.Herbs4Horses.com, 800/479-3537; Feedmark, www.feedmark.com, 800/462-8982; Fox Den Equine, www.foxdenequine.com, 540/942-4500; Herbs for Horses, www.horseherbs.com, 888/423-7777; Horses Prefer/Vets Plus, Inc., www.horsesprefer.com, 800/468-3877; Med-Vet Pharmaceuticals, www.unitedvetequine.com, 800/328-6652; Peak Performance Nutrients, www.peakperformancenutrients.com, 800/944-1984; Pro-Formula Laboratories, 800/525-3007; Select The Best, www.buyselect.com, 800/451-4660; Topfit, www.topfit-online.com, 888/373-3853; Uckele Health and Nutrition, www.uckele.com, 800/248-0330.