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Soothing the savage beast
Keeping show horses calm often linked to proper training, management, nutrition


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.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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