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.
* Please note this page is about helping our horses towards a calmer state due to a temporary issue or during positive desensitisation. For an ongoing, chronic stressed state, see our Stress page.
The equine calmer industry is huge. You just have to look at all the shelves of calming product at your local merchants, all claiming to be the best cure-all to manage every terror our horses experience, and even to calm them in advance of a situation we think they won’t cope with.
It’s hardly surprising – with half a ton of stressed horse in reactive 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 horses' natural defense system to a perceived threat - his instincts as a flight animal are telling him to be defensive, to run - fast - now!
The negative effect is two-fold – first on the horse, in that he’s reacting to a situation that's not making him happy, 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 gastrointestinal 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 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 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.
For the record, I am a firm believer that cribbing, box walking, weaving and wind sucking are all symptoms of stress, due to various reasons such as being permanently stabled, isolation or sheer boredom. I also firmly believe that these 'vices' are the horse's way of relieving their issue, and that when us humans use the well-practiced conventional, and in my humble opinion, tormenting methods such as collars/straps/sprays etc., in a ridiculously misunderstood attempt to remove these 'vices', we achieve nothing other than to further compound the horse's anxiety. These gadgets may discourage the behaviour but they will not relieve the urge to crib, box walk, weave and so on, and will only drive the stressed state deeper.
In my humble opinion (again), if a horse is allowed to be more of a horse, i.e. turned out with buddies to play and groom with, and able to naturally forage for at least 16-20 hours per day, you may find your horse becomes a whole lot mellower.
The good news is that there are a wide selection of 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 forage (hay/grazing) should be available at all times.
- Also, although it goes against the grain that we were all taught back in the day, eating hay before work truly helps to both relax your horse and help avoid the build-up of uncomfortable stomach acid. This can be caused by the increased pressure from work in the abdomen being forced up onto the unprotected mucosal layer in the stomach, exposing highly sensitive regions of the stomach lining, which normally wouldn't be exposed to corrosive acid, to acid activity.
- 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. See our MINERAL SOLUTIONS page for more info.
- If the hindgut microbial population is compromised by stress, inappropriate feeds, illness, or conventional medicinals such as bute or antibiotics, this can lead to a borderline B-vitamin deficiency which can affect behaviour. Adding Brewers Yeast into the diet is really useful as a prebiotic to feed the gut flora, which will also result in increased Vit.B production. Again, see our MINERAL SOLUTIONS page for more info.
- Feed Linseed (Micronised) - 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 and their attitudes could very well be hormonal. Check our Mares chapter if you're experiencing challenging characteristics, as one of our specific mare blends may be more appropriate for keeping your girl calmer and happier.
A final word on emotional stress
If your horse has experienced emotional shock or an accident, for example, please let me know as I can then tailor a blend to include the Golden Rod herb. Emotions are worked off through the kidneys, and it is thought that the kidneys can be significantly affected in severe stress cases such as these. Golden Rod is a renowned kidney support, and is thought to influence upset emotions very positively.