Do Horse Calmers Really Work?
You may find that some horses are more highly strung than others. If your horse is highly strung (and you are sure that you are providing the right diet) then you may be considering using a calming supplement for certain situations. But do horse calmers really work?
The short answer is yes. There is not an enormous amount of research into the subject of horse calmers. However, the studies that have been conducted indicate that calming supplements do have a beneficial effect on horse’s temperaments.
Calming supplements can feature a variety of ingredients but many include magnesium. Magnesium reduces the release of the brain hormone dopamine, which is linked to hyperactivity.
In 2007, a student at Myerscough College conducted research into magnesium and calming supplements by studying their effects on police horses. These horses often face extremely stressful situations including heavy traffic and unruly crowds but it is vital that they remain calm. The study looked at two groups of horses. One group received an active supplement, the other group received a placebo.
Researchers monitored the horses' heart rates while exposing them to stressors. It was clear that the group receiving the supplements had lower heart rates under stress than those receiving the placebo.
Another study in 2013, conducted at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, produced similar findings. Leisure horses faced the challenge of road signs placed in a riding school in positions that the horses were unaccustomed to seeing them. Again, horses which had received calming supplements exhibited lower heart rates than those which hadn’t when exposed to the stressors.
Scientific research certainly supports the efficacy of calming supplements. However, the FEI has banned some calming supplements. This is because they contain ingredients which sedate horses rather than merely suppressing dopamine production. Any level of sedation could be dangerous in the competitive environment as it could relax the horse to the point that their reaction times are significantly slower. For performance, you should avoid nutritional supplements which sedate. The most common ingredient known to be a sedative is Valerian.
Valerian features in many natural remedies for humans. This is a medicinal herb often used in products formulated to address sleeping disorders and anxiety. Valerian appears to act as a sedative but there is limited scientific research into this herb. The studies have failed to prove conclusively how Valerian works. However, there are indications that Valerian affects the same receptor in the brain as benzodiazepines.
So calming supplements can really work but in different ways depending on the ingredients. You should certainly avoid supplements containing Valerian if you are competing, for safety reasons and because you could find yourself banned. But there is as yet no evidence that Valerian or magnesium cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects or that the long term use of calming supplements is hazardous to equine health.