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Adaptogens and the Horse; How and Why?

Stress, anxiety, and even depression dramatically impact the horse mentally and physically.  This is especially true of the competitive equine athlete, but is also true for those horses stalled a lot or recovering from an illness or injury.  Stress is a physical response in the horse, often created by the mind within their head, responding to different circumstances, physical pain, or lifestyle factors.  Overcoming this stress response can lead to a healthier animal, faster recovery times from illness or injury, and improved performance.  Adaptogens are one key player in this recovery for the horse, but knowing how they work and when to use them can be the difference between success and failure.

Adaptogens and the Horse
Adaptogens and the Horse

In the first part of this article on adaptogens in the horse, I discussed the basics of how they work and which ones I generally utilize in practice.  I also discussed the diet and how important this aspect is to not only creating stress, but overcoming it in the horse.  In this second part, I hope to take this information a little further and into more detail.  Let’s take it one section at a time, first looking at the stress response.

The Stress Response in the Horse

The stress response in the horse is very similar to our own, and is a physiological response by the body to a stressor.  This stressor can be a change in environment or temperature, a trailer ride, training, competition, medication, herd dynamics, an injury, a health issue, and even the diet.  Under normal circumstances, the horse’s body, just like ours, is challenged or stressed every day.  They don’t take exams or have to speak in front of a large audience, but they do experience stressors throughout their day.  This could simply be a bully in the herd, a freezing rain, or a very hot ambient temperature.

In most instances, the stressor is short-lived, lasting less than a day, or even less than 30 minutes of time. The body responds to that stressor, chemical are altered and released within the body, and the body overcomes that challenge.  This is termed ‘acute-stress’ and the purpose on a low exposure level is to help the body to ‘adapt’ and become stronger.

The key here is that in most instances of ‘healthy’ stress, the stressor is short-lived.  This, unfortunately, is not the normal situation for us or them.  We and them live in a chronic-stress world, where the body does not have a chance to adapt and overcome, no period of full rest for recovery.  In this situation of chronic stress, the horse’s body is continually releasing stress hormones including cortisol and epinephrine on a low-level basis.  This not only impacts heart rate and blood pressure, but cortisol is catabolic in nature, destroying tissue, which leads to muscle loss and wasting of body conditions, hence the typical true PPID horse.  This elevated cortisol impairs the immune response and delays healing of tissues.  These elevated hormones also influence the process of inflammation, raising the levels, and further contributing to other problems including joint degeneration, allergies, and digestive imbalances.  Makes one wonder about stress and the average horse with EPM??

This chronic stress response and its implications are readily evident in the average horse with a tendon injury, stalled 23 hours of the day, handwalked for 30 minutes, and left to his own vices, which then fails to fully heal in 4-6 months.  This compared to the average horse with a tendon injury recovering often in less than 4 weeks, when managed properly with diet, turnout, and proper supplementation.

The adrenal glands are the primary organ involved with the stress response, being under the influence of the pituitary and hypothalmus, located at the base of the brain.  Over time, with chronic usage, the adrenal glands become fatigued, termed ‘adrenal fatigue’, and are no longer able to keep up with the required release of cortisol and other hormones.  At this time, extreme exhaustion sets in as the body can no longer counter the effects of stress.  Chronic stress will drain the body of all energy and function, if you give it enough time and the right circumstances.  It is what is responsible for most acute deaths, outside of trauma, at least in the human medical world, as most chronic illnesses are directly connected to chronic stress and inflammation.

Think of the body, your horse’s body, as having a battery which is supplying energy for all his physical and cellular needs.  Every ounce of stress can drain that battery, which then impacts the way your horse’s body response in energy and healing. The ultimate question is can you restore that battery for optimal health and reduce the drain placed upon it?? 

Seeing this, it is wise to attempt to counter that stress response and promote health balance in the horse, whether they are sick, injured, or competing.

Stress and the Diet in the Horse

The diet you choose to feed your horse can either contribute to the stress response or it can act as a medium to protect against the stress response, serving as a secondary adaptogen.  Let’s look at a couple of examples, hopefully without getting too complicated.

Your horse’s body requires real nutrition to counteract the stress response.  During times of chronic stress, the stress hormones literally eat away at tissue, creating inflammation, compromising the immune response, tendons, joints, hooves, and impacting digestion.  In order to help counter the stress response and it’s ill effects, the body must recover and rebuild.  This is the purpose of the diet, as it is supposed to provide real nutrients to aid in this recovery and rebuilding.  Protein, carbohydrates, fats and all micronutrients are vital, not just one or two.  These nutrients serve as secondary adaptogens, helping to rebuild the body.

If a horse is undergoing strenuous exercise or recovering from an illness or injury, they often need increased protein to do just that, recover.  Sadly, many horses do not receive adequate protein, are fed lower quality hays, synthetic vitamin supplements, and then do not make the gains they should.  This is a simple example of one macronutrient, being protein.  It is the same for all of the other nutrients.

One other mistake that we make is to feed or supplement only one nutrient, for example selenium, or magnesium, or even chromium, believing that will resolve all of the issues, but it rarely does.  The reason for this is that nutrients impact each other and also rely upon one another not just for function, but for absorption in some cases.  If you over supply one, such as vitamin E, not only can you create an imbalance in that REDOX system, but you are also ignoring the fact or reason as to why that horse may be deficient.  It is often not just vitamin E that is low, but many other antioxidants and nutrients.

Recovery is the purpose of the diet, to literally ‘feed’ that body so that it can mend, build, and resist stress whether if that is physical or mental.  The diet, however, can work the other way, and create stress or add to the problem of stress in that horse.

A prime example of this is a horse that is fed too much grain.  Grain is not only high in carbohydrates and influences digestive health negatively in high volumes, but it is heating to the body.  All foods have an energy to them, and it is wise to understand the energies present within foods because this can immensely impact health in the horse.  If you feed too much grain, for purposes of increased energy or body weight gains, you often create more of a problem than help resolve one.

The reason for this is two-fold.  First, in high grain load intakes, the grain will alter the digestive microbiome, creating digestion issues, contributing to ulcers, loose stools and other complaints.  This high intake of grains, and likewise carbohydrates, creates a huge supply of sugar, which then contributes to high energy levels and alters the digestive microbiome.  Second, the grain is heating by nature, creating not just increased body warmth, but in high and steady enough levels, will drain moisture from the body.  This is essentially Yang depleting Yin, in the world of alternative medicine.  For optimal health on all levels, the ideal approach is everything in moderation to achieve balance.  Take this high grain intake and combine it with other mental or physical stressors, such as stall confinement, and your negative effects likely just doubled.  This philosophy or rationale holds true for many supplements, even vitamin-mineral products, which often have sugar, fructose, or other ‘sweeteners or flavors’ added to enhance palatability.  These also impact the digestive microbiome and are ‘heating’ in nature.

Thus, any horse that is experiencing chronic stress or has a high strung personality, must have their diet evaluated as a first-step approach.  In many, the diet is either creating the problem, or strongly contributing to it.  Remember, the diet you choose to feed your horse will either contribute to the problem or help resolve it. You cannot supplement your way around an improper diet in your horse.

Choosing Adaptogens to Counter Stress in the Horse

Adaptogens, as outlined in the first part of this article series, are substances which help the body to counteract the stress response and promote balance within.  This counteracting of the stress response and promotion of balance are the keys to recovery and healing, not to mention long-term health in the horse.  Primary adaptogens are those herbs or ingredients which directly impact the HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is tied in with the stress response and responsible for excess cortisol, epinephrine, and other hormones.  The primary adaptogens are research supported to impact the HPA axis on some level, either by reducing hormone secretion or aiding to rebuild the adrenal glands and promote health in that axis.

While there are likely hundreds of adaptogens, not every adaptogen is suitable for every horse.  Most of the primary adaptogens do impact the HPA axis, so this is a shared benefit and present on some level with all of them.  The difference between them lies within their ‘energy’ patterns.  This can be a key point to understand and consider.  When it comes to energy patterns, look at it as being ‘male’ (Yang) or ‘female’ (Yin).  The male or Yang-like adaptogens are generally warming or even heating to the body.  The female or Yin-like adaptogens are more cooling or even cold in nature to the body. This, by the way, is also true of all foods and other herbs, outside of adaptogens. The goal with health is to achieve or promote balance.  Yin is an aspect of health that is more cooling and moistening in nature, while Yang is more heating and drying.  Yin is quietness or calmness, while Yang is movement and excitability.  Yin and Yang must be in balance, otherwise the body cannot function optimally and energy is not produced, nor can healing properly take place.

Let’s look at it simply from a male and female perspective, keeping in mind the warming or cooling aspects of both of those identities.  If a horse is undergoing chronic stress, this ongoing stress response will deplete the body, creating an imbalance not just in energy, but the Yin and the Yang.  The question, on a basic level, is which is more compromised or imbalanced, Yin or Yang? Your goal is to restore that balance, but in order to properly do that, you must identify what is lacking and what may be in excess.  Keep in mind that in my list of 10 primary adaptogens, all of them impact the HPA axis and all will aid in recovery in energy and healing.  Which ones you use or how you use them in combination can and will make the difference. 

Now, let’s take a couple of examples.

Example One:

First, let’s say you have a TB on the track that is fed a large amount of grain per day, exercised for one hour and then stalled.  He is pacing in the stall, cribbing, pawing and hard to handle at times as if he has too much energy.  He is also prone to stomach ulcers and on ulcer medications like candy every day.  His feces are formed most of the time, but loose often.  The problem is self-evident and is an imbalance.  On a basic level, you could say he is more ‘male or Yang’ than ‘female or Yin’.  Many would imply he is ‘hot’ and they’d be correct.  There is more ‘yang’ than ‘yin’ and that excess ‘yang’ is likely depleting the ‘yin’ or moisture aspect in the body.  In order to aid this horse with recovery and health balance, ideally the diet is first altered as it is a major contributor.  Then, you would desire to create more ‘yin’ in that horse, which may be through foods, or by using adaptogens that have the ‘female’ characteristic and are cooling, rather than heating.  Using an herb like Ashwaghanda by itself in these cases does not always yield great results, which is due to the fact that Ashwaghanda is heating in nature.  If you chose to use Ashwaghanda, then it may be wise to supplement with Yin-tonifying herbs or foods, like asparagus, wild-yam, marshmallow, or aloe vera gel, to help restore the imbalance.  Ideally, herbs like Reishi, Shatavari, or Lemon-balm are more ideal in this situation to serve as adaptogens, as they are more cooling in nature.  In a leaner, hotter-natured horse, I tend to use the Cur-OST EQ Stomach in combination with the EQ Adapt & Calm.

Example Two:

In this situation, let’s assume that you have a mid-aged warmblood or QH that has been competing heavily over the past year.  This horse has encountered several injuries, been diagnosed with EPM, and overall seems to be running on fumes lately, almost completely exhausted.   Their personality is very quiet, reserved, with not much emotion coming forth.  This is the opposite of the scenario outlined above.  Here, you have depletion of the body’s battery, which is not just impacting physical energy, but immune health, and the ability to heal or recover.  On a basic level, you could look at this scenario as being one of too much “female or Yin” and not enough “male or Yang”.  The body of this horse gives off an energy of coldness, fatigue, and depletion.  They could use some ‘warming up’ and this can be achieved by using adaptogens with more heating qualities, which include ashwaghanda, cordyceps, astragalus and even ginseng.   The diet would also be modified, maybe including some grains, warm mashes, and plenty of high-quality forage to aid in cellular recovery.  In these types of cases, I tend to use formulas like the EQ Adapt & Calm and the EQ Revive.

Adaptogens and their Energies in the Horse

Adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years, dating back to original Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine.  They are herbs that are believed to ‘restore’ and rebuild the body, being used in athletes for decades and also to aid in the recovery of many illnesses.  Remember that every disease or illness comes with stress, as that illness is reflective of a state of imbalance.  The word “dis-ease” is just that, an absence of ease or balance in the body.

In Ayurvedic medicine, two herbs stand out in restoring male and female health, and are seen as ‘rasayanas’ or rejuvenators.  Ashwaghanda is the premier herb for men and Asparagus root (Shatavari) for women.  Men are more Yang, more heating, as is Ashwaghanda.  Women are more Yin, more cool, as is Asparagus root (Shatavari).  The more heating herbs tend to encourage testosterone production in the body, while the more cooling herbs tend to support estrogen and other female hormones. This does not mean we use those herbs specifically in all situations, as outlined in the examples above.  The ultimate point is to recognize an imbalance between the Yin and the Yang, and correct for it with your chosen therapy.  A man, stallion or gelding can be deficient in the Yang component just as easily as they can the Yin component.  The same holds true for the average woman or mare.

Here is my list of primary adaptogens that we utilize daily:

Keep in mind that these herbs not only impact the HPA axis, helping to restore balance to the body and calm anxiety, but all of them are anti-inflammatory, and benefit the immune response on some level.

  1. Ashwaghanda – drying and heating in nature, rebuilding quality
  2. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) – cooling, nutritive and rebuilding in nature
  3. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – cooling in nature
  4. Eleutherococcus – neutral in my opinion, neither heating or cooling
  5. Astragalus – neutral in energy, can immensely increase energy, immune, and digestive health
  6. Cordyceps sinensis– more heating or warm in nature
  7. Asparagus (Shatavari or regular) – cooling in nature, rejuvenating
  8. Shilajit – warming in nature, rebuilding quality
  9. Bacopa– cooling in nature, benefits the mind and cognition
  10. Hawthorn Berry – neutral to slightly warming, benefits cardiovascular health
  11. Amalaki (Phylannthus emblica) – cooling, nutritive, rejuvenating

I rarely use a single adaptogen, but rather use them in combination.  This combining of adaptogens can increase their ability, when using with other similar herbs, but also I use them to counter one another and encourage balance in the horse.  It is rare to just see a ‘yang’ type of excess or even a ‘yin’ excess or deficiency.  Chronic stress depletes both, in my opinion, and we are often better served to focus on the major imbalance with higher levels, while also supporting the other at a lower level.

Adaptogens can be given daily, and with any injury or medical condition.  There have been no contraindications for their usage, outside of being used improperly, and keeping in mind regulations within various equine disciplines.  The bottom line take-home point is that these adaptogens can serve tremendous benefit to any competing, training, or recovering horse.  This includes those recovering from a surgery, a lameness, a metabolic condition, or injury. It’s all stress, and if you don’t control it or mitigate it, results can be varied.  Using adaptogens wisely and in the correct combinations will yield the best results, but it is wisely recommended to keep the diet you are feeding in mind as this is likewise a key player.

Adaptogen Formulas to Consider:

Bulk Adaptogens:

Want to learn more about the “Yin and Yang” of foods and the benefits to your horse?

Check out our course “Introduction to Foods and Herbs in the Horse


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN






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