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The best horse calmers can help to navigate stressful situation or periods in your horse’s life. Horse calming supplements have a multitude of benefits, from reducing immediate danger to your horse and self, to lowering the risk of stress-related disease.
Although most evidence surrounding the use of calmers for horses is anecdotal, some calming ingredients are researched backed to support calming effects.
Magnesium plays an important part in nerve function. As a calmer, the addition of magnesium may help to firing of nerves fibres, reducing signs and feelings of nervousness and excitability. Research suggests that high doses of magnesium in horses slowed down reaction time, possibly evidencing an effect on nerve firing.
In addition, playing a role in impulse transmission between the brain and muscles, magnesium also has a vital role to play in muscle function. Providing adequate magnesium in the diet may help aid activation of muscles and prevent fatigue. This could help alleviate aches and pain, and strengthen areas of weakness.
Deficiencies are most likely in spring, during periods of strong grass growth, which may impact mineral balances in the forage. Winter pastures are also prone to having low magnesium levels, due to environmental conditions reducing growth rate and quality.
Horses have a limited ability to store magnesium. This means problems from a magnesium deficiency are likely to manifest quite quickly. Therefore, a dose of the mineral is needed every single day!
The National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses recommends that a mature, idle horse weighing 500kg should consume 20g of calcium per day. This requirement increases to 30g-40g per day for the same horse in light to heavy exercise.
Calcium may not directly calm your horse, but it is needed in the stressed horse’s diet.
Calcium levels in the body are controlled by a hormone called calcitonin. Calcitonin draws on calcium stores when the body is deficient and reduces circulating calcium when there may be too much. During stressful periods or when horses are engaging in high levels of exercise, they may lose calcium through thier sweat. This is immediately resurrected by calcitonin by drawing of stores on the mineral in bone. Consequently, this could impact bone health.
In addition, when feeding magnesium, it is important to feed calcium alongside as magnesium can interfere will calcium balance. This will also result in an increased likelihood of bone problems and can un-do work of feeding for hoof health.
Fenugreek can help alleviate the effects that stress has on the body. A recent study showed that infrequently exercised horses who were supplemented with fenugreek had reduced post-exercise lactate concentrations. Lactate is produced during energy breakdown. When lactate builds up it can cause;
Lactate is produced, not only when exercising, but during intense periods of stress too. Therefore, supplementing with fenugreek may be a good way to mitigate the negative effects of stress on performance and comfort.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a live-yeast culture and pro-biotic which has gained a lot of attention in recent years for it’s multitude of benefits.
Research suggests that in horses, saccharomyces cerevisiae improved digestibility of feedstuff. Therefore, it reduces the chance of any vitamin and mineral deficiency that may cause any added stress or behavioural change to the horse. Performance and growth have been suggested to benefit from the supplementation of this probiotic too, further suggesting benefits that may mitigate stressful events. For example, assisting performance and growth may avoid scenarios where a horse’s knowledge outweighs their physical ability, which can cause frustration and stress.
In addition, health problems which stress can provoke, such as colic, have been shown to be reduced with supplementation of saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Oligosaccharides are pre-biotics which can aid metabolism of nutrients in the digestive tract.
Under stress, the horse’s microbiome (gut bacteria) can be dysregulated, causing reduced digestion and absorption of vital nutrients. However, studies in mice have found that the addition of dietary pre-biotics re-establish B vitamins in the colon, which are essential for nutrient breakdown. In addition, the supplementation also helped to limit stress-induced inflammation, which may cause discomfort and behaviour change if left unattended to.
Current studies in horses have also found similar effects in modulation the microbiome of the intestines.
To keep your horse calm whilst in the stable, whilst loading, or when riding, a range of complementary techniques can be used. Techniques include;
Positive reinforcement can act as a way to mitigate stress and encourage calm and collected behaviour.
Positive reinforcement is defined as rewarding good behaviour. Therefore, anything, from patting to treats, can act as a positive reinforcer if given in return for good behaviour.
Studies have shown positive reinforcement to be very valuable in horse training and one of the most effective ways to encourage learning. With the stress hormone, cortisol, hindering learning capacity, using positive ways to encourage behaviour can help to accelerate the learning process.
Applying positive reinforcement to reduce stress may look like rewarding horses once they have moved past their stress response. This can help establish what is right and wrong behaviour in the face of a stressor.
If there is a certain object or environment which elicits a stress response in a horse, introducing this slowly into their life is the best way to reduce negative feelings surrounding it.
Making the unfamiliar, familiar can help horses adjust to something stressful, through a process called ‘habituation’. Habituation is repeating or prolonging exposure to an object to reduce the behavioural response.
To use this technique with horses, it may look like incorporating the stressor into their everyday life, such as placing in the field, placing it in the stable, or riding regularly with it in the background. If it’s a new or certain environment causing stress, building up exposure to this will help reduce stress. Starting small and quiet, build up to bigger, more stressful venues. Remember to reward good behaviour!
Research has shown by drowning out sudden and variable yard noises and the use of a soothing tone, classical music can positively effect horse’s emotional state.
In addition, classical music can soothe stressed horses. During transport, classical music has been shown to decrease several stress indicators, such as duration holding the ears backward. It also induces a faster post-stress heart-rate recovery, suggesting that the stress was felt to a lesser degree or that horses are able to use classical music as a calming distraction.
The horse is a social species which establishes long-term and complex relationships. Therefore, without a language between horse and owner, grooming is one way in they can communicate effectively toward them and help to calm them down.
Finding a horses preferred sight of grooming can reduce heart rate, with high heart rates being a key sign of stress. This is often sited at the lower neck of horses, where their herd mates will commonly groom too. However, from horse to horse, this may differ. Un-preferred sites of grooming may elicit no response or an adverse response in reaction.
Heart rate is suggested to be lowered through grooming due to it being an activity only carried out when the herd is in a place of safety.
Essential oils have gained more and more attention in recent years to soothe the nerves of horses.
Lavender oil has shown the best effects, with recent studies showing it increasing the parasympathetic response in horses. The parasympathetic response is the relaxation of the nervous system, elicited by feelings of safety. It is also known as the ‘rest and digest’ response, as body functions work optimally in this state.
Vetiver, spikenard, and chamomile oils have also been shown to be effective in reducing heart rate and respiratory rate; key signs of a relaxed horse.
The effects of spikenard and chamomile oil has been praised for their ability to help relax horse’s facial expressions and body language. How horse’s covey themselves form a key part of communication. As herd animals, horses use their facial expression and body language to warn of danger and ensure safety and survival. Therefore, the effect of chamomile and spikenard in relaxing body and facial muscle tension may be a key finding in horse’s mental status and the efficacy of essential oils for calming.
To apply essential oils, there is no need to invest in humidifiers. Simply placing a few drops of the oil onto rugs and accessories the horse wears should be enough to show a benefit. In addition, it means calming effects are more portable. Avoid placing essential oils directly onto the skin or coat, as this may cause an adverse reaction.