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Soothing the savage beast


It is early morning on the average American horse show grounds. The mist is just beginning to clear and the horses, trainers, riders and associated show personnel are only now beginning to rise. But some grooms and horses have been at it for a while already. They are in the warm-up ring or on a nearby field, and they have been lunging around since first light.

It is early morning on the average American horse show grounds. The mist is just beginning to clear and the horses, trainers, riders and associated show personnel are only now beginning to rise. But some grooms and horses have been at it for a while already. They are in the warm-up ring or on a nearby field, and they have been lunging around since first light.

Stressful environment: Some experts say excessive trailering of show horses can increase their excitability and possibly contribute to gastric or colonic ulcers.

These are the horses that are nervous, anxious or "too excitable" and they have been working out since dawn in the hope that by show time they will be calm enough for their riders to make it around the ring. These horses often are the same ones presented for veterinary attention as their owners seek a drug or treatment protocol that can calm and focus them for competition.

Human sports psychologists have long known that an athlete needs more than just fitness and training. There is a mental aspect to competition: "One's head must be in the game" to be successful. The same is true for equine athletes. A nervous or skittish horse does not train easily and learns and progresses slowly.

A hyper-excitable horse may not eat or travel well, which can affect its show performance. Such a horse can be difficult to "muscle-up" because it seems literally to walk off its body weight as it nervously paces in its stall. An aggressive mare, or one that shows excessive heat or estrus behavior, may be a distraction to other horses in the barn or at a show. It may be so difficult to get her focused on her training that she makes productive work impossible.

Often owners and trainers turn to products or remedies available through tack stores or vet-supply catalogs. The number of such products is staggering and the various names seem to promise it all: Quietex, Mare Magic, Relax Her, B-Kalm, Chill, Calm and Cool and many more.

Pre-show exercise and some form of calming supplement all too often is the recipe of choice for these horses. But is this the best plan? Or, are there perhaps better ways to deal with them? What really is known about the many "calming" products in use, and what do veterinarians in the horse-show world actually recommend?

Two factors governing behavior

The two factors that most strongly determine equine behavior are genetics and management. Just as all people are not suited to the pressures and special demands of some jobs, so horses are not all adaptable to the rigorous life of a show or competition athlete. Attempts should be made to get the "right" equine personality type for the task or environment.

Nervous mares may produce nervous foals and aggressive, hard-to-handle stallions often can produce similar colts. These difficult or aggressive behavioral traits are well known for certain horses in all breeds, just as certain horses also are known for producing easygoing, tractable offspring. Owners and trainers should be encouraged to look at the genetics of behavior when trying to produce or purchase an equine athlete, thereby avoiding some long-range problems.

Management, the other factor affecting behavior, includes all aspects of the horse's environment, such as nutrition, exercise, rest and turnout, social interactions and sleep patterns. By applying poor management practices, an owner or trainer can predispose a horse to nervous or anxious behavior.

Dr. Joyce Harman of the Harmony Equine Clinic in Flint Hills, Va., one of the leading holistic practitioners in the country, believes stressed horses suffer from either of two major causes: "lack of turnout or some type of underlying pain response."

All competitors with behavioral problems should get a full physical examination, including a good ocular and oral exam. Musculoskeletal issues and any hoof, joint or soft-tissue concerns must be addressed.

Tack problems always are a possible source of behavioral issues at shows, so well-fitting and correct bits, girths and saddles must be used. Recent advances in saddle-fit technology using thermography and pressure-pad analysis have made it much easier for the veterinary practitioner to ensure that tack issues are not at the root of a competition problem.

Veterinarians working on equine athletes should include a qualified saddle-fit technician or practitioner with thermography and/or pressure-pad analysis as part of their sports-medicine team for all show horses.

Importance of exercise

Lack of turnout is one management factor that can be controlled and improved upon, if not completely corrected. Dr. Harman explains, "The horse evolved as a free-ranging animal with a need for social interaction, continual grazing and an ability to burn off excess energy with frequent bouts of running and pasture play."

Harman points out that modern management practices have greatly reduced this free time; show horses have even less of it, often getting little more than training sessions and a small paddock turnout. "Some people", Harman says, "consider a 20-to 30-minute ride to be work, but a half-hour session once a day simply is not enough for a horse from a mental or physical standpoint."

Dr. Ken Kopp, a nutritional consultant in Virginia, echoes this idea and adds, "Many ill-tempered horses need more forced exercise or, as the old-time horsemen say, the best medicine for a behavioral problem is a wet saddle blanket."

Jerry Modlin, head trainer at Jabar Arabians Ltd. in Georgia, expresses the same idea a bit differently when he says "The best thing you can put on your horse is your shadow."

So if more exercise is the answer, then just how much is enough? Dr. Harman advises using a heart-rate monitor when working horses to be sure the animal's heart rate is high enough to burn sufficient calories and expend enough mental energy. She suggests hill work if possible, totaling one to two hours three times weekly combined with ring work.

"It is unlikely," says Harman, "that a fit show horse working in a ring will have a heart rate much above 80, and this is not high enough to produce many benefits and certainly not enough to calm the horse."

The lunging horses in our opening example suffer from the same problem. Simply lunging may make them fitter, but it may not be sufficiently difficult exercise to tire out the horse or make it any calmer. Harder and more variable exercise is a simple answer but often very difficult for most owners and trainers to achieve.

Nutrition plays a role

Another area that can be addressed is nutrition. Overfeeding grain or concentrates in an attempt to produce the "round" look favored in the show ring can produce nervous or excitable horses.

High carbohydrate feeds never have been shown to create nervous energy, just more energy, which translates into "hyper" horses.

Higher-protein feeds increase ammonia and then urea production as the horse processes that excess protein through its kidneys. This protein flush speeds electrolyte loss in the urine and electrolyte imbalance – especially of calcium, magnesium and potassium – can produce nervous, "jittery" or excitable horses from a metabolic standpoint. This can be a special concern during the hot, humid weather of the summer show season, when mild to moderate dehydration often is seen.

Electrolyte supplementation always is a good idea and the right mix and amount can help keep some horses calmer. Fortunately, some newer feeds are lower in starches and carbohydrates. These help reduce nervousness in some horses and research has well documented the calming effects of higher fat diets on both horses and hyperactive children.

Many of the products used to try to calm horses have a nutritional basis. They contain high levels of B-vitamins, magnesium, chromium, calcium and amino acids, such as thiamine and tryptophan. There is some research evidence that all of these substances produce calming effects, but the actual degree of calming and the exact mode of action for many is not completely known.

Magnesium oxide is used orally; magnesium sulfate is sometimes given intravenously and can be combined with thiamine. Quiessence is a high-concentration magnesium (and chromium) pelleted supplement favored by many trainers. Dr. Juan Gamboa, a horse-show veterinarian in Aiken, S.C., who frequently travels the East Cost show circuit, urges caution with injectable magnesium.

"Some horses are more sensitive than others and some can have serious reactions," says Gamboa.

He notes that, other than magnesium in its various forms, most show horses being treated for nervousness or lack of concentration are given some combination of calcium, thiamine, lactonase, tryptophan, methocarbamol (Robaxin), ACTH gel or herbal products.

Gamboa believes strongly that gastric or colonic ulcers are an important consideration for the nervous, irritable or unfocused horse. He often recommends medical treatment with omeprazole.

"Putting a horse in a 10x10 stall, feeding concentrate twice daily, limiting hay access, trailering, horse showing in the heat or cold or dust, and then additionally using NSAIDs, steroids and other medications – I feel that close to 100 percent of performance horses have some degree of ulceration – gastric, colonic or both," says Gamboa.

Proper training is key

But despite all available medication and products, Gamboa and most veterinarians involved with show horses agree that training is crucial. "In my opinion," says Gamboa, "good horsemanship is probably the most important."

Harman also feels that calming agents and other products often are "a poor way to short-cut training." She admits there are some horses that simply have difficulty dealing with the stresses of shows and that for them help sometimes is necessary.

Some of these horses may have deficiencies (mineral, vitamin or other) that can be difficult to detect via any current laboratory tests. "We simply do not know which horses that we treat with these products are being corrected – which (product) helps with the prior behavioral problems," Harman says.

This may explain why one product works well for a particular horse but has little or no effect on another. "Finding the right herbs or drug combinations for a specific horse unfortunately will be a bit of hit-or-miss and will require some fine tuning," says Harman.

Herbal preparations are Harman's first choice for treating nervous or excitable horses. She feels there are fewer problems with herbs than with drugs, and more individual choices.

Chinese herbal preparations are becoming more popular with horse-show trainers, yet it can be difficult for most veterinarians to accurately determine the contents and actions of many of these products.

Some products questionable

Veterinarians should caution their clients because many of the substances in these "natural" remedies and related calming products are prohibited by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) and other governing bodies. Devils Claw, Kava Kava, Hops, Passion Flower and Valerian are just some of the prohibited substances often found in herbal or medicinal preparations.

Many other herbs are not specifically listed as illegal but will be considered such if they prove to have a performance-enhancing (calming or focusing) effect.

The USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program can be contacted at (800)633-2472 or at medequestrian@aol.com for help with questions on medications, herbs and supplements.

Attention to management factors that do have a basis in good science may help many nervous and anxious horses. Dietary evaluation, focus on possible ulcer conditions and a hard look at training, tack, turnout, rest and other management practices often will reveal areas that can be improved, helping turn around a horse with a behavioral problem.

If veterinarians, owners and trainers fail to consider the simple, but often overlooked, causes of nervous or anxious behavior, they may find an herb or supplement that helps soothe the savage equine athlete but, as the experts agree, the beast eventually will be back.

Kenneth Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.

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