By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
Travel and competition season is upon us, and “show nerves” are common, even in horses. Agitated, nervous horses that are normally well behaved may benefit from a calming supplement. These products can contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, or amino acids. So, which to choose and how best to use them? Before making a decision, consider these important points:
1). An empty stomach is the main cause for behavioral issues—forage (hay or pasture) should be available at all times.
2). Magnesium deficiency may be the issue, since most horses don’t get enough of this mineral. If this is true for your horse, supplementing 5,000 milligrams of magnesium per 500 pounds of body weight will make a positive change in demeanor.
3). A borderline B-vitamin deficiency will affect behavior and can result when the hindgut microbial population is compromised by stress, high starch diets, illness, or antibiotics. Thiamin (vitamin B1) has been shown to be especially effective at high doses (1 milligram per pound of body weight). Prebiotics that feed existing microbes also result in more B vitamin production.
4). Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, leads to serotonin synthesis in the brain and can be useful in soothing a nervous horse. For this effect to occur, it is best to offer tryptophan as a paste between meals. When added to a meal, tryptophan will not be used for serotonin production and the calming effect will be significantly diminished
5). Caution! Herbs such as chamomile, valerian, black cohosh, ginger root, and passion flower may have an over-tranquilizing effect, interact with other medications, and have side effects. Consult with your veterinarian before using.
6). Additional caution to competitors: Always check any supplements for ingredients prohibited by competition rules. Valerian is such an example.
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide American and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.