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Evaluating the Anxious Horse

by Dr Clair Thunes PhD Nutrition
Consulting Nutritionist for EnviroEquine & PET
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Anxious horses are not much fun to ride. They are often reactive and unpredictable and as a result can become unsafe. If they would just calm down life would be much simpler and more fun. Those calming supplements suddenly look mighty attractive. “Could that tube of stuff bring my horse back?” you wonder. Should you try thiamine, magnesium, tryptophan? What do these ingredients do anyway?

Here’s the kicker, despite their popularity, there is no conclusive scientific research that these ingredients will have a calming effect on your horse. In fact some, in certain situations, may make things worse. Let’s be honest, if we take a deep breath and really think about it we know, that all these things are just a band aid. None of them really get to the heart of the problem.

By getting to the bottom of what is actually causing your horse’s anxiety and reactivity rather than reaching for the calming supplement you will improve your horse’s health and well-being, and in the long term improve your relationship with your horse.

So instead step back and take a really good objective look at what is going on with your horse. Is your horse reacting because he is bored? Maybe you are rehabbing from an injury and your previously engaged performance horse now finds himself with little to think about on his daily walk-trot sets. How could you mix things up within the scope of your rehabilitation protocol to keep him mentally engaged? Perhaps you needs things to keep yourself engaged so that you can feel when things are about to get interesting before they do.

Is he in pain? This is the category that many reactive horses fall in to and it is a tough one because you have to pin point the pain so you can treat it before the reactivity will go away. Does your tack fit? An ill-fitting saddle or bridle may cause pain, reactivity and anxiety. Even that custom fit saddle may not fit any more if your horse’s topline has changed shape. Perhaps there are sharp points on his teeth that cut into his cheeks when you take up a contact and he needs to be seen by the equine dentist?

Could there be a problem with arthritis or hoof pain that you have not identified? Maybe your horse has a muscle myopathy and his reactivity is due to the fact that he has severe muscle pain and cannot engage in the work you are asking and, with no other way to tell you, he acts out, telling you in the only way he knows how.

Possibly there is gastrointestinal distress. Horses exercised on an empty stomach or a stomach containing little fiber are at greater risk of stomach ulcers due to the stomach acid sloshing around and contacting the unprotected squamous mucosa in the upper portion of the stomach. As a horse engages the hind end, the abdominal muscles engage too lifting the abdomen and causing upward pressure on the stomach which forces the stomach contents and acid up into contact with those unprotected squamous mucosa. Horses with problems with the bacterial ecosystem in their hindgut may have discomfort and be uncomfortable in their work, acting out in ways that make sense to them but that are not desirable to us as riders.

Reaching for the calming supplement, before insuring that none of these potential sources of pain are an issue, is a disservice to you horse.

And if there is no pain? There are a couple of other things to consider. Maybe there was pain in the past and the anxiety is your horse anticipating pain even though none is present. This is particularly tricky because learned behaviors are hard to break. If you have ruled out all possible sources of pain it may be necessary to find someone to work with who can really take your horse back to basics. A complete change of lifestyle may be in order.

Over training is another fairly common but overlooked issue that results in a sour attitude and sometimes reactive behavior.  If you have your horse performance fit and you maintain this top level of fitness for extended periods of time with few breaks in the training and showing schedule it is possible that your horse may be suffering from overtraining.

Also consider your horse’s diet. Perhaps you are feeding more calories than the horse actually needs each day or perhaps calories are coming from sources that are very easily metabolized such as starch and sugars which result in rapid spikes in blood glucose. Just as when you sneak that Halloween candy you get a boost of short term energy but not long after you regret your choice as the crash sets in and you feel worse than you did before. Some horses are more sensitive to such rises in blood glucose than others and may become reactive and more on edge.

Again the calming supplement is the Band-Aid but the fix would be to lower intakes of starch and readily available sugar and if calories are needed rely instead on sources of fat and fermentable fiber.

EnviroEquine offers several products that may help with issues relating to anxiety and reactivity associated with gastrointestinal health and calorie source. GastroBalance Plus with its comprehensive formula of sodium bentonite clay, live yeast and mycotoxin binders helps to maintain a healthy stomach and gastrointestinal tract. OmegaBalance provides a source of cool calories from fat that also helps insure a balanced inflammatory response due to the beneficial levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Lastly the iFEED automatic feeding system allows you to feed your horse’s textured or pelleted feed in a number or predetermined small meals around the clock. This feeding system is research proven to support gastrointestinal health.

By getting to the bottom of what is actually causing your horse’s anxiety and reactivity rather than reaching for the calming supplement you will improve your horse’s health and well-being, and in the long term improve your relationship with your horse.

Consulting Nutritionist for EnviroEquine Dr. Clair Thunes is passionate about her profession—one that she decided upon at the age of 14. After earning a Bachelor of Science with Honors from Edinburgh University, and a Master of Science in Animal Science and a PhD in Nutrition from the University of California, Davis, Dr. Thunes went on to found Summit Equine Nutrition LLC an independent consulting company in 2007. An experienced nutritionist and accomplished scientist, Dr. Thunes understands the vital role that nutrition plays in managing horses today. Most importantly, she believes in making nutrition accessible to everyone and removes the guesswork so that owners have the peace of mind that their horse’s diets are optimal for maximum health and peak performance.  Her clients include all horses from competitors at the 2016 Rio Olympics to retired pasture friends, mules and miniature donkeys. She writes a weekly online commentary for theHorse.com and her nutrition articles have been published in noted publications including: The Horse, Equine Wellness, Trail Blazer, Horse & Rider and The Horse Report. Besides consulting she teaches equine nutrition and equine exercise physiology in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis and equine health at Cosumnes River College.  Clair continues to be involved with The United States Pony Clubs, Inc. and she is currently the Regional Supervisor for the Sierra Pacific Region.

Photos: virgonira & wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo