Adaptogens are powerful in their ability to impact the health of the horse, and the term ‘adaptogen’ has become rather familiar for many owners. In today’s horse world, anxiety runs very deep, contributing heavily to ulcers, irritable bowel conditions, performance issues, a lack of focus, and many other problems. For many owners, they are seeking that one solution, that one fix, that will remedy all of their horse’s problems, and while this is possible in a few cases, for most the solution comes with a better understanding. As with all things, if you’d like to properly implement something and gain results, it is best served to take the time to better comprehend the problem and possible solutions.
In equine competitions around the world, one main problem exists, and that is anxiety and stress in the horse. Interestingly enough, this issue of anxiety is not just restricted to the horse, but is reflective in our human society as well. One tends to create and fuel the other. Depression, on the other hand, is present heavily in human society, but not as common in the horse unless there is complete boredom, isolation from other horses, or a medical issue. Both, anxiety and depression are reflective of mental health, and because the brain or mind is connected with the body, these states of mind impact health and even lameness. Never forget that the brain is what is responsible for all of the cellular signaling events in your horse’s body, from muscle contractions to healing of wounds. If the brain is not working properly, due anxiety or depression, your horse’s body will likely be impaired as well.
One key aspect when it comes to mental health in the horse, as in people, is that ‘you are what you eat‘, simply put. The brain requires proper protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients to function properly. When your horse is not fed properly, his brain health will suffer and either contribute heavily to anxiety or depression, or make him more susceptible to these conditions.
Taking this into consideration, if you are dealing with anxiety or depression in your horse, the diet you are feeding is the first line of consideration! Take the time to evaluate the diet, determine why you are feeding it, and look closely as to how that diet may be impacting your horse and his health.
Keep these things in mind when trying to manage any problem in your horse:
- You cannot supplement your way out of a bad diet.
- You cannot supplement your way out of too many rich carbohydrates in the form of grains and their impact on gut health and even brain metabolism.
- You cannot supplement your way out of poor quality forage through the use of synthetic vitamin-mineral product.
- You also cannot supplement your way out of poor quality turnout, socialization, and the never ending side effects of stall confinement.
These are facts and the more you believe you can, the more you will likely lay out financially regarding health care and lameness issues in your horse. Your veterinarian and your farrier are more than happy to take your money for recurring issues, but if you’d like this to stop, assessing your horse’s diet and lifestyle are key points in accomplishing this feat.
Adaptogens and the Horse
There are hundreds of adaptogens, which include not just herbal extracts, but isolated amino acids and micronutrients. An adaptogen is any substance which assists your horse in adapting to stress and achieving balance, which includes recovery and healing. As mentioned, there are likely hundreds of different adaptogens, with some being labeled as ‘primary’ and some ‘secondary’ in their effect upon the body of the horse.
Primary adaptogens directly assist the body in adapting to stress, usually by impacting the HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is responsible for release of cortisol, epinephrine and other stress related hormones. When your horse is physically or mentally stressed, his adrenal glands respond to signaling by the brain, and release these chemicals into the blood stream. Cortisol, being one of the main chemicals, is anti-inflammatory in nature, but is also a catabolic steroid. Thus, it helps to reduce inflammation associated with a stressful injury, as an example, but in cases of long-term stress exposure, cortisol contributes heavily to tissue destruction and muscle wasting. Your horse’s body condition is negatively impacted as is their performance and stamina. Simply look at the average Cushing’s or PPID horse, which usually have elevated cortisol levels, and observe the impact on their body condition and muscle tone.
Secondary adaptogens usually do not directly impact the HPA axis, but more so counter other negative pathways associated with stress. They help to offset the ‘bad’ things that happen, such as helping to rebuild tissue or improve cellular function. They do not impact the stress pathway directly, but more so indirectly. This would be like sitting in a chair for long periods of time, creating stress upon your back and buttocks. A primary adaptogen would cause you to stand up and eliminate the stress. A secondary adaptogen would be a soft cushion applied to your seat. One solves the main problem, the other just counters a negative effect.
Why are Adaptogen’s Banned in Horse Competitions?
If you pay attention to the many horse competitions and disciplines, as mentioned before, anxiety and stress are very big problems. For many horses, this can be a result of influences of the diet, lifestyle, or other factors. They can become unruly, hard to handle, lack focus, and often dangerous. Then comes the health and lameness consequences, including ulcers, diarrhea, colic, poor performance and many others.
Given the extremely high frequency of stress and anxiety related problems, many owners turn to supplements and medications to curb these negative effects. Some owners routinely use sedatives, prescribed by their veterinarian, which are not just unsafe but totally contradict their overall purpose as a medication. These medications are often used daily, if not several times per week, to settle their horse’s nerve and allow for them to perform or simply be ridden. This is like a person driving a car, teaching your child at school, or even performing surgery on you or your horse while taking a sedative or muscle relaxant. Not a good idea, and one reason as to why these medications are banned. They create an artificial state of sedation, not relaxation, which is dangerous to both horse and rider.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding and proper usage, many adaptogen herbs have also been banned from equine competitions. Why? The ruling parties believe these substances do the same thing as a medication, which I suppose they could if improperly used, and thus could open the door for danger.
One interesting fact here is that in human athletes, Clean Sport allows for the usage of several adaptogens, actually encouraging many athletes to utilize them. For the most part, they are seen as highly beneficial, and not a performance enhancing substance. However, many of those upper level human athletes either understand the adaptogens, or have an expert guiding them in their usage, which improves outcomes.
The fact is that stress and anxiety are heavily present in the horse and in competition. To me, as a veterinarian, it is much wiser to allow for adaptogens to be used properly, which will assist in establishing a state of balance in that horse, than it is to allow them to compete in an ill state of mind. I would venture to guess that a horse on an adaptogen is less likely to fall or injure themselves, than a horse that is not focused and flying off the handle. Creating mental and physical balance in the horse is not performance enhancement. This is only relative to what they are up against in their competitors. This is an attempt to restore health, and if you do that properly, performance comes with it.
However, the key factor here is proper usage of the adaptogens. Most owners do not take the time to understand what they are supplementing, thus not every adaptogen is correct for every horse. This incorrect ‘match’ can lead to negative outcomes, just like a drug interaction, however, it is no where near as severe or long-lasting.
Choosing Adaptogens in the Horse
As I mentioned earlier in this article, nutrition and lifestyle are the two key factors in helping to reduce the impact of stress. An improper diet will create stress in the horse, so providing the proper diet will reduce stress, acting as a primary adaptogen of sorts. Allowing your horse time out on pasture will also reduce stress directly, being a primary adaptogen and change in lifestyle. It is truly amazing what these two simple things can do for your horse, both mentally and physically.
If stress and anxiety continue, for reasons beyond your control, then adaptogens can be very useful. Keep in mind that just like every person, each horse has their own constitution, which is how they react to food and life events. For some, they are very laid back, but put on weight very easily. In others, they are more high strung, over-reacting to many things, and being more lean in nature. This is how your horse is, by nature, and that is okay, however, diet can still be playing a huge role in contributing to that nature. A laid back easy keeper is made worse by an improper diet with too many calories and not enough exercise. Likewise, a high strung horse that is burning calories, is made worse by a high carbohydrate, grain based diet, for many reasons.
Regarding adaptogens for the horse, there are many primary adaptogens that can greatly assist in helping to calm the mind, enhance energy, aid in focus, boost immune health, and even enhance performance. However, no one adaptogen is suitable for every horse, at least not without taking into consideration how that adaptogen impacts them.
There are several adaptogens that we use and recommend routinely, and I will use these as examples, noting the differences. All of these adaptogens impact the HPA axis and mitigate the impact of stress, but they have other properties which set them apart. These other properties are what can either help or hurt your horse, all dependent upon their needs.
- Reishi (Ganoderma)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Cordyceps sinensis
- Hawthorn berry
These are the top 10 primary adaptogens that are utilized and recommended in our equine patients. For some horses, they are used alone, while in other cases, they are used in combinations. Synergism can be quite potent, when used in combination, and this allows us to use lower doses of each. In other cases, they are used in combination to help offset potential negative effects of each other, which then creates further balance in the horse.
In a second article, I will review these 10 primary adaptogens, their benefits, their potential drawbacks, and how to counter these effects.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN