Principal Body System: Nervous
Definition: Brain, spinal cord, nerves and sense organs, i.e. the eyes and ears
Function: Regulates body activities through nerve impulses
The equine calmer industry is huge. You just have to look at all the shelves of supposed 'calmers' at your local feed-merchants or tack shops, all claiming to be the best cure-all to manage every terror our horses experience, or to calm them in advance of a situation we think they won’t cope with.
It’s hardly surprising – with half a ton of red-zone horse in react mode, leaping in every direction with four potential weapons of mass destruction in one kick, it’s no wonder we turn to something - anything - to quell our horses’ fears and hopefully keep us safe alongside them.
Short-term tension is all part of the equine's natural defense system to a perceived threat - their instincts as a flight animal are telling them to defend themselves and run - fast - now!
The negative effect is two-fold – first on the horse, in that they're reacting to a situation that to them, is blind-panic terrifying, and secondly on us - depending on the degree of the reaction, it can completely shatter our confidence. From then on both parties end up spooking each other, and haven't we all been there at some time in our life ...
In the human world, apparently 75-90% of doctors' appointments are due to stress-related situations; sadly this is no surprise, as stress causes profound changes in the body’s biochemistry. For starters, it can cause changes in hormone levels, weaken the immune system, and significantly alter cardiac and gut function. The physiological and psychological effects of stress can also continue long after the initial cause. Whatever the trigger, ongoing, long-term, chronic stress threatens the whole body’s normal healthy balance.
Stress also uses up much more of the body’s energy resource. Energy levels can be depleted because nutrients are being converted to energy that is needed to counter the effects of threat. If balance isn't restored, this then has the knock-on effect of causing the body to become fatigued, which can then lead to further health issues.
For our horses, triggers can include anything from a quick spook at the flappy bird in the trees, to extreme rigid fear. It goes without saying that an approach on our part is to use effective, force-free habituation methods, combined with trying for a better understanding of the causes, working with our horse with positive partnership - not dominance and control - to overcome their fears, and, of course, re-looking at diet, lifestyle and management.
The good news is that there's a lovely selection of nervine and anxiolytic herbs which may go some way to help the short-term stressed horse. Result? One happier horse, one happier carer.
Possible considerations before using a calming supplement
- An empty stomach can be a major cause for behavioural issues — just one of many reasons why adlib forage (hay/grazing) should be available at all times.
- Also, feed hay before work. An empty stomach during a pressured work routine can increase pressure in the abdomen, forcing stomach acid up onto the unprotected and highly sensitive mucosal layer in the stomach, which normally wouldn't be exposed to corrosive acid.
- Our UK soil is typically deficient in magnesium, and it may very well be that this is the issue, since most horses don’t get enough of this vital mineral. Ensuring there's magnesium in your horse's diet can make a positive change in demeanour, not because it's a 'calmer', but because calcium needs it for healthy cellular exchange, and it's calcium that fires the muscles into action. See our Mineral Solutions page for more info.
- Feed micronised linseed - linseed not only lubricates the sensitive gut wall with mucilage but omega-3 fats also help trigger the production of serotonin, which can be useful in soothing a nervous horse.
NB. Mares with attitude (!) could very well be hormonal. Check our Mares chapter if you're experiencing challenging characteristics.