Calming products are widely used for horses, with many owners turning to calming supplements to try and deal with unwanted reactivity, ‘fizzyness’, unpredictability, high energy levels, social anxiety (being herdbound) and other unwanted behaviours.

We shouldn’t forget that – in general – we keep horses for their athletic nature, and their free spirit is what draws many of us to them. They are prey animals who have evolved to be reactive to sounds, sights and feeling trapped, and they have evolved move freely whilst grazing and visiting watering points. It is a credit to their adaptability that our horses can settle living in stables and being ridden or handled in restrictive ways.

We need to put more effort into understanding the underlying reasons for unwanted behaviour.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for many horse calming products, and some good physiological explanations about how they might work. Good scientific evidence is, as yet, scant or non-existent. Before we investigate calming supplements, here are some important tips to help keep your horse or pony calm:

  • Patient and consistent handling and training, with an understanding of how to reward desired behaviour and discourage unwanted behaviour
  • Confidence and calmness in the rider and/or handler
  • As much turnout as possible
  • Avoid starchy feeds and get as much nutrition out of fibrous forage as possible
  • Choose high digestible fibre, low starch compound feeds
  • Add vegetable oil to limit reliance on large amounts of compound feed

The huge variety of calming supplements available – and the huge variety of ingredients used – indicates that not all work on all horses. There is likely to be a large effect of the rider or handler on the horse’s behaviour, if they are expecting the calmative to work. This applies even with riders or handlers who would refute it, because horses can feel unconscious intention, which we ourselves may not be able to.

Herbal calmatives such as those containing valerian are probably the most consistent, although they are not permitted in competition. Herbal remedies have stood the test of time, and many modern-day medicines are made from herbs. There is a reason why certain herbs are banned in competition! Despite very wide use, there is no good evidence for supra-optimal levels of magnesium as a calming agent. The same goes for high levels of B-complex vitamins and the amino-acid tryptophan, despite a little evidence for the latter in humans and poultry. Several research studies have shown that tryptophan does not work in horses, and some authors have recommended that ‘a greater effort should be made to identify the underlying causes of excitability’ (Grimmett & Sillence (2005) Veterinary Journal, 170 (1)). Other amino acids, lecithin, yeast and other gut-supporting substances are also ingredients you might find in a calmative.

It takes a lot of time and patience to train horses correctly so that they trust and respond to the human’s cues or ridden aids.

It’s early days in terms of behavioural research, however, and objective ways of measuring and interpreting reactive behaviour in horses have yet to be developed, according to Glenys Noble of the School of Animal & Veterinary Sciences, Charles Stuart University in Australia, who (with colleagues) published a research paper in 2013 on this subject.

Until we better understand horse behaviour and how to objectively assess it, it will be difficult to scientifically test calmative products. Until then, it’s a case of trial and error to find out whether a certain product will work on your own horse. But, as recommended, we should always make effect to investigate the underlying cause of the excitability, and we should take seriously the ethics of using any type of calmative for horses expected to take part in jumping and galloping training or events.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.