Calming without medication
Your horse isn’t bad or aggressive. He’s just … well, he isn’t the placid guy who rolls sedately with every new request and stands like a rock for the veterinarian and farrier. No, your horse is the one who jumps first and asks questions later.
“I’ve found that horses, for the most part, are trusting animals; they are pretty open to most things,” says Jenny Johnson, VMD, of Oakhill Shockwave and Veterinary Chiropractic in Calabasas, California. “But some are defensive right off the bat, and these are not necessarily horses that have been abused. They are just naturally suspicious or cautious because they are wired a little differently, like some people.”
And that can be a problem when the horse needs to stand still. A horse who frets and starts at every minor disturbance poses a danger to himself and anyone nearby. That means that sometimes it’s simply necessary to administer a sedative or tranquilizer to help a horse through a veterinary or farriery procedure. But in the vast majority of instances, administering medications can also seem like bringing out the “heavy artillery” when, in fact, a lighter approach might be preferable.
Indeed, there are a variety of ways to ease a horse’s anxieties without using sedatives or tranquilizers. What works best depends on the particular horse and situation, and many techniques require some planning and preparation. What’s more, over the long term, the best approach boils down to simply treating your horse gently, firmly and consistently over time so that he learns he can trust and respect your leadership when he confronts something new. Chances are you’ll find that one or more of the following techniques, products or approaches can help soothe your horse’s anxieties and curb his more extreme behaviors.
1. GROUND MANNER REVIEW
The foundation of ground manners is a relationship of respect and trust between horse and handler. If a horse has learned to consistently pay attention to you and respond to your direction, he’ll look to you for leadership in stressful situations, which will help keep him calm.
“Keeping a horse relaxed comes from training and consistent, calm handling, and your own confidence in yourself and in the horse,” says Tia Nelson, DVM, a veterinarian and farrier from Helena, Montana.
If you are unsure of your horse’s ground manners, have an experienced friend watch you perform basic tasks and offer pointers. You’ll also find numerous books, videos and other resources, some from natural horsemanship trainers, describing how to establish good basic manners. If you need more help, seek the services of a reputable professional trainer.
2. DESENSITIZATION TECHNIQUES
If your horse is generally well mannered but gets upset about certain specific activities, such as loading into a trailer or receiving injections, you’ll want to tackle desensitization training, which means gradually exposing him to the situation that he fears, gently pushing the limits of his comfort zone. Over time, with patient repetition, the horse will become less reactive to the situation that bothers him.
“If a horse is flighty and nervous for the farrier or for veterinary procedures, one of the best ways to approach this problem is to work with the horse in advance, to prepare and desensitize him to what is going to happen,” says Johnson. “If it’s a young horse, the more you can expose him to a variety of circumstances, the better.”
The techniques for desensitization training vary with the specific issues being addressed, but most rely on some form of advance and retreat: If a horse resents having his ears handled, for example, you might start by scratching him at the closest point he will permit contact before reacting, such as the shoulder. When he accepts that, you retreat—then next time move your hand further forward up his neck, and retreat again just before he reacts. These sessions may need to be repeated, but over time your horse ought to become more comfortable with the previously feared actions. “Once those horses become acclimated to a specific procedure or event, they realize it’s not so bad and they don’t panic,” says Johnson.
3. SOOTHING SOUNDS—OR SILENCE
“Growing up, people told me to talk all the time when working around horses, so they know where you are and you never startle them,” says Johnson. “Then I worked at a big breeding farm after I finished vet school. One of the farm managers was an older Kentucky horseman, and he told me, ‘Stop talking! The horse knows you are there. If you are talking all the time, the horse gets nervous.’ I realized there was some truth to that.”
Try some different vocalizations with your horse and read his reaction. If your horse remains edgy as you continue to talk, hum or whisper, try keeping quiet a while to see how he responds. “See what works but keep in mind that there needs to be a balance,” says Johnson. “If you are talking nonstop it can be too much sensory overload for some horses.”
4. LOW-STRESS ENVIRONMENT
When planning for a procedure or situation that will be stressful to your horse, choose a setting that won’t add to his anxiety. “If the farrier is coming, is it in a place where the horse feels comfortable?” says Johnson. “If the horse will be in cross-ties, make sure the horse is at ease with being cross-tied and used to going to that particular place. Don’t have him going somewhere new.”
Avoid making obvious changes to the scene before the visit. For example, wait until later to hang the blanket to dry within your horse’s line of sight, and choose a time when there will be less movement and activity around the barn. “Also pay attention to weather conditions when working on the horse,” says Johnson. If the forecast will be windy, for example, consider rescheduling for a calmer day.
5. TURNOUT AND/OR EXERCISE
A high-strung horse who spends too much of his time confined to a stall is going to have energy to burn, which of course can fuel anxious behavior. “If horses can have plenty of turnout, this is a big help,” Johnson says. “If horses don’t get out much, when they do they are more apt to run and buck and possibly hurt themselves.”
If more turnout is not an option in your situation, then it may help to increase the amount of exercise your horse gets. “In our region in California we don’t have much availability for large areas of turnout,” Johnson says. “Our horses might get their exercise via hand walking or a European style walker or by being ridden. Those things are important if your horse lives in a confined space.”
If your horse needs more exercise than you can provide, consider enlisting a friend or two to ride him once or twice a week or look for someone to enter a half lease agreement. Ensure the pairing is compatible—in terms of experience and personality—to keep everyone safe and ultimately reduce your horse’s stress.
Massage therapy—manually rubbing or manipulating the muscles—has become popular at many racing and sport horse barns. Massage is mainly used to relax muscle spasms, improve circulation and increase range of motion, says Johnson, but “anything that makes a horse more comfortable may help him relax and relieve tension.”
Talk to your veterinarian if you’re interested in pursuing massage therapy with your horse. It may not be a good idea in horses with certain injuries or conditions such as skin tumors. You’ll also want to ask for recommendations to find a qualified massage therapist in your area who has undergone appropriate training.
Another therapeutic option is acupressure, which makes use of the same target points on the body as acupuncture, but instead of piercing the skin with needles, the process involves gently pressing or rubbing the spots with the pads of the fingers. Chinese traditionalists will say that the goal of the treatment is to improve the flow of “life force” (“qi” or “chi”) along “meridians.” Westerners are more likely to ascribe the effects of acupressure to reduced muscle tension and/or the release of endorphins, hormones that block pain and make the patient relax and feel good.
When Johnson begins work on a chiropractic patient, she says, “I start at the head and TMJ [temporomandibular joint], along various lines of the face and different trigger points—and the horse simply relaxes. It makes the rest of what I need to do go much smoother.” For more information on acupressure, go to the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage (www.nbcaam.org).
8. CALMING SUPPLEMENTS
Browse the supplements section of any well-stocked retailer, and you’ll find dozens of products intended to help calm fractious horses. None are classified as drugs, which means their manufacturers have to prove only that they are safe for your horse, not that they are effective. Nevertheless, many have been on the market for years, and customers have reported good results.
Ingredients in calming supplements vary. Many contain magnesium, which plays a role in muscle and nerve function; chromium, a mineral that helps regulate blood sugar; and thiamine (vitamin B1), which supports the nervous system. “People usually use [these products] for horses with metabolic syndrome, but they also help horses that are high-strung and skittish, to settle them down,” says Nelson.
You’ll also find supplements that contain herbal ingredients, such as chamomile, valerian root and raspberry leaf, all of which are traditional calming agents. “These might help some horses and not others,” says Johnson. “There are many herbal products available and some are probably helpful, but it depends on the horse and the situation, and what you are trying to accomplish.”
One of the newest products on the market contains alpha-casozepine, a protein derived from milk that is believed to calm nursing youngsters. Studies have shown that alpha-casozepine has calming effects in several species. In a 2012 study from the University of Pennsylvania, three semi-feral ponies were given an oral alpha-casozepine supplement once daily beginning five days prior to being brought into a barn for two weeks of basic training for tasks such as haltering, stabling, leading, tethering and grooming. The three ponies treated with alpha-casozepine, along with three nontreated control ponies, were then ranked on a scale from 1 to 6 for calmness, compliance and their ability to learn new skills. All three of the treated ponies performed better than the untreated controls, and six weeks after the initial training period, the treated ponies had also retained the most training.
Talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before adding new products to your horse’s feed regimen. They may be able to suggest specific brands or formulations that might be more appropriate for your horse. If you take your horse to shows, you also need to be careful of ingredients that might appear on drug screenings.
“If the horse owner is competing in shows I would caution against giving the horse something that does not have a full list of ingredients. Some herbs may be on the forbidden substance list, not so much because they are a problem but because they are masking agents,” Johnson says. “Just because a substance is natural or organic does not mean that it will not test or even that it is good for your horse. Both the United States Equestrian Federation and the Fédération Equestre Internationale have lists of forbidden substances on their websites, along with medication guidelines, that every owner should consult prior to administering any type of supplement to their horse.”
Chemicals released by animals to affect the behavior of others in the environment, pheromones play many roles, signaling everything from alarm to sexual receptivity. For several years, products based on pheromones secreted by females to comfort and reassure their offspring have been available to help calm anxious dogs and cats. Recently, similar products for horses have been introduced. One new product contains a synthetic version of “equine appeasing hormone,” which nursing mares produce to calm their foals. The product is a gel that is applied inside the horse’s nostrils at least 30 minutes prior to a stressful event or situation.
Since ancient times, people have used essential oils extracted from flowers, roots, bark other plant parts for aromatherapy to enhance physical and mental well-being. Nowadays, aromatherapy is also available for horses. Treatments may be performed by aroma-therapists, but several direct-to-consumer products are also on the market.
Aromatherapy with essential oils is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any specific treatments, but studies in human medicine have suggested that lavender oil can reduce pain and ease anxieties in patients with cancer and other serious medical issues. One 2013 study, conducted at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, measured the effects of lavender essential oil on seven horses. Each horse’s heart rate was documented before and after an air horn was set off in an adjoining stall. All of the horses underwent the test twice: once while breathing pure humidified air, and once while exposed to an 80/20 percent mix of humidified air with aerosolized lavender essential oil. When exposed to the lavender, the horses’ heart rates were significantly lower, an indication that they were less stressed by the noise.
High-strung behavior may be encoded in your horse’s genes, but it doesn’t have to rule his life. By taking steps to calm him, distract him and teach him that he need not be fearful, you can go a long way toward keeping him safe and happy, and maybe even a joy to work with.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #468, September 2016.