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Anxiety Reduction and Improved Physical Cooperation in Horses Through the Use of Withania somnifera (Ashwaghanda)

An Observational Clinical Study

by Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, DABVP(eq)

Introduction:

Anxiety and stress in horses are a common problem in the equine industry, contributing to behavioral problems, training issues and poor performance.  In some cases, increased levels of anxiety are associated with health related issues such as gastric ulcers, which have been shown in some studies to impact a large percentage of horses, necessitating long term administration of anti-ulcer type of medications.

 Exact causes of stress in the horse can be hard to determine, but are often linked to herd issues, housing conditions, environmental factors, handling methods, training, transportation and competition.  Horses are very similar to humans in the respect that they respond better to consistency and routines on a day to day basis.  Any upset in that routine can contribute to stress formation which then manifests as behavioral issues.  Learned behaviors or responses to stress in prior environments can transfer forward even though the prior initiating factor has been resolved. 

Manifestations of stress and anxiety are commonly see not only in cases of gastric ulcers, but also manifest behaviorally as bolting, jumping, panicking, trailering difficulties, pacing, stall weaving, pawing and biting.  Some horses, like people, tend to release their stress outwards in their behavior, making it obvious that there is a problem, while others tend to internalize their frustrations.  In the later of the two cases, it can make it more difficult to readily detect stress in the horse’s life and often owners view their horses as being very content, having a hard time connecting the impact of stress or anxiety on their behavioral problems.  Many owners view their horses as having the ‘perfect’ life with daily turnout and free time, but don’t realize the impact of daily training and monthly competition.

Management of stress and anxiety in the horse is erratic at best.  In most instances, we are chasing the consequences with pharmaceuticals such as gastric protectants or acid reducing medications.  In other cases, we are using pharmaceutical sedatives to help reduce the manifestations, which often create a physical danger to the rider and horse.  There are many supplements on the open market designed to ‘calm’ the horse, which often contain L-tryptophan, magnesium and other amino acids designed to reduce nerve sensitivity and impact levels of neurotransmitters.  The overall impact of these supplements is unknown, but often the horses respond initially, but fail to respond for the long term

Withania somnifera, also commonly referred to as Ashwaghanda or Indian Ginseng has been used in Ayurvedic medical cultures for centuries primarily as an aphrodisiac, but also for anti-inflammatory properties and to manage conditions ranging from bronchitis to insomnia, anxiety and cognitive disorders.  Current research studies have focused on Ashwaghanda for its anti-inflammatory properties and impact on cancer, cognitive disorders and possible chondroprotective roles in osteoarthritis.  Roots of the plant have been reported to demonstrate anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-stress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, haemoetopoietic and rejuvenating properties. 4,5,6 Ashwaghanda has also been shown to benefit the endocrine, cardiovascular and central nervous system.3

 In Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwaghanda is classified along with many other herbs into a group called adaptogens, which appear to create a non-specific state of increased resistance to adverse effects of chemical, biological and physical agents. The chemical constituents isolated from Ashwaghanda include alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins (glycosides) and withanolides.  Ashwaghanda has also been noted to be a rich source of iron. 3

 Ashwaghanda has been evaluated in many clinical trials for the impact on stress and anxiety with overall notable findings.  In one human trial, subjects were evaluated for markers of stress over a 60 day period while consuming a concentrated Ashwaghanda extract.  At the end of the trial, the treatment group noted a marked reduction in scores on a stress-assessment scale and serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced.1 Ashwaghanda has also been found effective in managing obsessive compulsive disorder.2

 

Purpose of Trial:

Ashwaghanda has demonstrated marked ability in human research trials to impact stress related disorders including anxiety, helping to restore focus and reduce overall implications on health.  The goal of our research trial is to gain observational data in a small population of horses being administered a low dose, concentrated Ashwaghanda extract, on the ability to reduce anxiety, help restore focus and improved cooperation in the horse for both rider and trainer.

 

Patient Selection:

Candidates for the study were selected at random with the main inclusion criteria being horses that were exhibiting signs of stress associated behaviors including anxiety related disorders.  All horses had prior experience with various ‘calming’ supplements and noted short term effects with no long term control of the problem. There was no restriction of diet or concurrent supplements during the trial and owners were encouraged to continue the same daily routine for the horse in order to eliminate any other variables.

 

Materials and Methods:

All owners were asked at the beginning of the trial to grade their horse’s anxiety and behavioral conditions on a scale of 1-10, with a score of 10 being seen as severe.  The owner’s also reported the current issues they were facing with each horse.  The trial was continued for 30 days and at the end, the owners were asked to once again grade their horses on the same scale of 1-10 and make comments on changes in the prior behavioral issues.  The owners were instructed to note any negative changes or side effects if seen.

 All horses received a 30 day supply of a pure and concentrated Ashwaghanda 4:1 extract and the owners were instructed to give ¾ teaspoon (1.8 grams) once daily per 1000 lbs.

 

 Results:

Table 1.01:  Patient Information and Complaints

 

Horse

Age

Gender

Breed

Complaint

1

17

Gelding

NSH

Difficulties trailering since prior accident, generalized anxiety, restless sleep

2

3

Gelding

QH

Spooky, anxious when competing

3

9

Gelding

Lusitano

Not confident under saddle, hard to control, anxious

4

9

Gelding

APHA

No confident under saddle, anxious, hard to control

5

22

Gelding

TB

Separation anxiety, herd bound

6

9

Gelding

Welsh Cob

Poor confidence, range of depressed to spooky

7

9

Gelding

Lusitano

Past trailer accident and now hard to load and restless

8

16 

Gelding

Hanoverian

Range of behaviors, quiet to overly anxious, hard to control

9

10

Mare

Warmblood

Inattentive, spooks and bolts

10

9

Mare

QH

Paces, headshaking, hard to load

11

8

Gelding

TB

Stallion like behavior, won’t hold gait or lead

12

3

Gelding

TB

Off track, anxious, over-reactive, hard to control

 

Table 1.02:  Patient Grading Pre and Post

 

Horse

Pre-Score

Post Score

Comments

1

7 / 10

2 / 10

Able to load, more relaxed

2

6/10

3 / 10

More mellow, focused

3

7 /10

4 / 10

Canters freely, no head tossing

4

8 / 10

4 / 10

More relaxed, less nervous

5

8 / 10

3/10

More relaxed, easier to handle and manage

6

7 / 10

7/ 10

No change

7

8 / 10

3 / 10

More relaxed when trailered, less anxious

8

8 / 10

2 / 10

Less nervous and anxious

9

8 / 10

3 / 10

More attentive, focused, no spooking or bolting

10

6 / 10

1 / 10

No pacing, no headshaking, easier to load

11

5 /10

5 / 10

No change

12

8 / 10

2/ 10

Relaxed, focused and easier to ride

 

Discussion:

 The results gathered during the course of this trial were purely observational from the horse owner’s perspective.  Judgment criteria were purely subjective and based on prior experiences with behavioral problems in that particular animal, from the owner’s point of view.  There were no specific parameters monitored, but more simply we were attempting to assess for an impact on the behavior patterns more important to the owners at that time.

 In most instances, the owners reported generalized anxiety as a problem, which manifested as being hard to control, hyper-reactive or hyper-responsive to stimuli, trailering difficulties, pacing, head shaking and riding difficulties such as spooking or bolting.

 When reviewing the data, we note that 10 out of 12 horses, 84%,  of candidates responded very favorably to the Ashwaghanda concentrated extract, generally within 7-10 days of beginning administration.  Only 2 out of the 12, 16%, of horses failed to respond to the concentrated extract and upon further inquisition to the owner, there was a suspicion of concurrent lameness issue, instead of anxiety related disorder, that may have contributed to failure to respond.

 The general feedback from the owners noted a reduction in overall anxiety relating in an increased ability to readily manage their horse, a more willing animal to be ridden or trailered and fewer behavioral problems such as pawing, pacing or spooking.

 No side effects were noted throughout the trial and considering that many of the horses were on concurrent supplements, there were no noted interactions or additive type of effects. 

 

Summary:

 

Ashwaghanda, Withania somnifera, has been used in Ayurvedic medical cultures for centuries to help manage and improve a variety of conditions, including anxiety disorders.  Current medical research also supports the use of Ashwaghanda as a general mood tonic, helping to create a state of relaxation, focus and reduced anxiety in animal and human models.  The overall health benefits are due to the ability of Ashwaghanda to impact blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels, reduce inflammation, reduce cellular oxidative stress and potentially impact neurodegeneration. 

 In view of the research data that is available and considering the results of our observational trial, Ashwaghanda extracts deserve more attention in the potential management of stress related behavioral disorders in horses. 

 

 

Disclosures:

 Tom Schell, D.V.M. is a private equine veterinarian and head of product research and development for Nouvelle Research,Inc.

 

References:

1.     Chandrasekhar,K. Kapoor, J et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwaghanda in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012, Jul 34(3); 255-62.

2.     Kaurav, BP, Wanjari,MM et al. Influence of Withania somnifera on obsessive compulsive disorder in mice. Asian Pac J Trop Med., 2012, May, 5(5); 380-4

3.     Mishra, L., Singh, B. et al, Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwaghanda): A Review. Alt Med Rev, vol 5, no 4, 2000.

4.     Sumantran, V, Kulkarni, A. et al, Chondroprotective potential of root extracts of Withania somnifera in osteoarthritis, J. Biosci., 32 (2) 2007,299-307

5.     Winters, M. Ancient Medicine, Modern Use: Withania somnifera and its Potential Role in Integrative Oncology, Alt Med Rev, vol 11, no 4, 2006

6.     Withania somnifera, Monograph, Alt Med Rev, vol 9, no 2, 2004

 

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