Soothing the savage beast

Soothing the savage beast

Keeping show horses calm often linked to proper training, management, nutrition
Jun 01, 2007

Stressful environment: Some experts say excessive trailering of show horses can increase their excitability and possibly contribute to gastric or colonic ulcers.
It is early morning on the average American horse show grounds. The mist is just beginning to clear and the horses, trainers, riders and associated show personnel are only now beginning to rise. But some grooms and horses have been at it for a while already. They are in the warm-up ring or on a nearby field, and they have been lunging around since first light.

These are the horses that are nervous, anxious or "too excitable" and they have been working out since dawn in the hope that by show time they will be calm enough for their riders to make it around the ring. These horses often are the same ones presented for veterinary attention as their owners seek a drug or treatment protocol that can calm and focus them for competition.

Human sports psychologists have long known that an athlete needs more than just fitness and training. There is a mental aspect to competition: "One's head must be in the game" to be successful. The same is true for equine athletes. A nervous or skittish horse does not train easily and learns and progresses slowly.

A hyper-excitable horse may not eat or travel well, which can affect its show performance. Such a horse can be difficult to "muscle-up" because it seems literally to walk off its body weight as it nervously paces in its stall. An aggressive mare, or one that shows excessive heat or estrus behavior, may be a distraction to other horses in the barn or at a show. It may be so difficult to get her focused on her training that she makes productive work impossible.

Often owners and trainers turn to products or remedies available through tack stores or vet-supply catalogs. The number of such products is staggering and the various names seem to promise it all: Quietex, Mare Magic, Relax Her, B-Kalm, Chill, Calm and Cool and many more.

Pre-show exercise and some form of calming supplement all too often is the recipe of choice for these horses. But is this the best plan? Or, are there perhaps better ways to deal with them? What really is known about the many "calming" products in use, and what do veterinarians in the horse-show world actually recommend?

Two factors governing behavior

The two factors that most strongly determine equine behavior are genetics and management. Just as all people are not suited to the pressures and special demands of some jobs, so horses are not all adaptable to the rigorous life of a show or competition athlete. Attempts should be made to get the "right" equine personality type for the task or environment.

Nervous mares may produce nervous foals and aggressive, hard-to-handle stallions often can produce similar colts. These difficult or aggressive behavioral traits are well known for certain horses in all breeds, just as certain horses also are known for producing easygoing, tractable offspring. Owners and trainers should be encouraged to look at the genetics of behavior when trying to produce or purchase an equine athlete, thereby avoiding some long-range problems.

Management, the other factor affecting behavior, includes all aspects of the horse's environment, such as nutrition, exercise, rest and turnout, social interactions and sleep patterns. By applying poor management practices, an owner or trainer can predispose a horse to nervous or anxious behavior.

Dr. Joyce Harman of the Harmony Equine Clinic in Flint Hills, Va., one of the leading holistic practitioners in the country, believes stressed horses suffer from either of two major causes: "lack of turnout or some type of underlying pain response."

All competitors with behavioral problems should get a full physical examination, including a good ocular and oral exam. Musculoskeletal issues and any hoof, joint or soft-tissue concerns must be addressed.

Tack problems always are a possible source of behavioral issues at shows, so well-fitting and correct bits, girths and saddles must be used. Recent advances in saddle-fit technology using thermography and pressure-pad analysis have made it much easier for the veterinary practitioner to ensure that tack issues are not at the root of a competition problem.