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


He notes that, other than magnesium in its various forms, most show horses being treated for nervousness or lack of concentration are given some combination of calcium, thiamine, lactonase, tryptophan, methocarbamol (Robaxin), ACTH gel or herbal products.

Gamboa believes strongly that gastric or colonic ulcers are an important consideration for the nervous, irritable or unfocused horse. He often recommends medical treatment with omeprazole.

"Putting a horse in a 10x10 stall, feeding concentrate twice daily, limiting hay access, trailering, horse showing in the heat or cold or dust, and then additionally using NSAIDs, steroids and other medications – I feel that close to 100 percent of performance horses have some degree of ulceration – gastric, colonic or both," says Gamboa.

Proper training is key

But despite all available medication and products, Gamboa and most veterinarians involved with show horses agree that training is crucial. "In my opinion," says Gamboa, "good horsemanship is probably the most important."

Harman also feels that calming agents and other products often are "a poor way to short-cut training." She admits there are some horses that simply have difficulty dealing with the stresses of shows and that for them help sometimes is necessary.

Some of these horses may have deficiencies (mineral, vitamin or other) that can be difficult to detect via any current laboratory tests. "We simply do not know which horses that we treat with these products are being corrected – which (product) helps with the prior behavioral problems," Harman says.

This may explain why one product works well for a particular horse but has little or no effect on another. "Finding the right herbs or drug combinations for a specific horse unfortunately will be a bit of hit-or-miss and will require some fine tuning," says Harman.

Herbal preparations are Harman's first choice for treating nervous or excitable horses. She feels there are fewer problems with herbs than with drugs, and more individual choices.

Chinese herbal preparations are becoming more popular with horse-show trainers, yet it can be difficult for most veterinarians to accurately determine the contents and actions of many of these products.

Some products questionable

Veterinarians should caution their clients because many of the substances in these "natural" remedies and related calming products are prohibited by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) and other governing bodies. Devils Claw, Kava Kava, Hops, Passion Flower and Valerian are just some of the prohibited substances often found in herbal or medicinal preparations.

Many other herbs are not specifically listed as illegal but will be considered such if they prove to have a performance-enhancing (calming or focusing) effect.

The USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program can be contacted at (800)633-2472 or at
for help with questions on medications, herbs and supplements.

Attention to management factors that do have a basis in good science may help many nervous and anxious horses. Dietary evaluation, focus on possible ulcer conditions and a hard look at training, tack, turnout, rest and other management practices often will reveal areas that can be improved, helping turn around a horse with a behavioral problem.

If veterinarians, owners and trainers fail to consider the simple, but often overlooked, causes of nervous or anxious behavior, they may find an herb or supplement that helps soothe the savage equine athlete but, as the experts agree, the beast eventually will be back.

Kenneth Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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