The horse is just as prone to anxiety as we are, believe it or not. Anxiety in the horse impacts their performance and ability to pay attention, but it also can dramatically impair their health. The anxiety problem in the horse industry is becoming a big problem. Many horse owners are just seeking a calming supplement for their horse and some even resort to sedatives or tranquilizers. Although some of these remedies can help, most are not getting to the root of the problem. Until you get to the main issue at hand, the anxiety and impacted performance may always be an issue of concern.
Anxiety or anxiousness in the horse shows up in many forms. In one situation, you may have a horse that is more high strung, pacing and running a fence line. In another situation, the horse may be internally anxious, seem less focused and have associated health conditions. In both, you may experience behavioral problems including cribbing or pawing, but also stomach ulcers, hindgut ulcers, recurrent colic, and even loose stools or diarrhea intermittently. Anxiety can impact any horse, but the approach is not always the same with each one. In most of the cases, I tend to classify them as easy-keepers or harder-keepers. Most fall into one class or another.
What is anxiety in the horse?
Anxiety is a state of uncertainty, fear really, which develops as a result of stress or an improper stress response by the body to stimuli or events. This state of mind is very evident in some horses while in others, not so much. Obviously, anxiety is more common in the competitive horse, while less prominent in the horse at pasture with other mates. The stress associated with training, competition, training and housing conditions creates the anxiety or greatly contributes to it.
Anxiety is the end response, it is a state of mind. Considering that you may have many horses in a training facility, but only one or two have a problem, what makes them that way? Can one horse be more prone to anxiety than another? Absolutely! This is indeed true when we look at people, so it has to be true when it comes to horses as well. Why?
What is my horse anxious while another is not?
That is a good question and really boils down to their particular response to stimuli. Anxiety is really a biochemical response, with variations of neurotransmitters and hormones that create overstimulation of the response mechanism. Just like other health conditions, there are many working parts to this equation. This is where I tend to group horses into the easy-keeper versus ‘normal’ or harder-keeper horse.
The Harder-Keeper Anxious Horse; Cause and Management
The harder-keeper horse is one that tends to be more hyperactive, more prone to obvious gastric ulcers and behavioral conditions such as pawing or weaving. We tend to think that this over physical activity is what contributes to their difficulties in maintaining weight and you are correct. Anxiety and ongoing stress in this group leads to a need to release pent up energy. Stress and anxiety are both metabolic burners in this group of horses, leading to a higher calorie burn. The need to release pent up energy leads to things like pawing, weaving and running of fence lines, which then also leads to an increased calorie burn. Just allowing this group of horse more pasture time, to release that energy, can be beneficial. In the end, this group is harder to keep weight on.
This group of horses needs a different approach. Many will use sedatives in this group, magnesium supplements or other ‘calming’ supplements. In some cases, results are evident but the problem is not well managed. If you step back for a minute and look at this horse, the leaner and stressed horse, think of them as a boiling vat of water. They have so much internal heat building up inside of them, that really it is literally drying them out. The body is composed of 65% water, on average, which decreases as we or they age. If a body produces too much internal heat, stress related or otherwise, it will consume this water mainly through evaporation. This is what then leads to weight issues and also contributes to higher degrees of health problems such as dry joints (arthritis), tendon issues, hoof concerns, and stomach issues such as ulcers. In the case of ulcers, with this group of horses, the stomach is actually on fire to a degree and dry, which creates and contributes to the ulcers. The digestive problems in this group are secondary to the stress response. They are not primary, thus response to ulcer medications is decent but the need for them is ongoing. You are not addressing the primary problem, which is the improper stress response.
What is our goal with this group? Ideally, you want to calm them, which seems logical. As you calm them, you reduce that internal fire or heat. There are many options that owners will use, which include sedatives and calming supplements, including magnesium. Again, sometimes these do help. Magnesium can be an issue in some of these horses, be deficient and lead to abnormal nerve firing. Supplementation can help in many, but often the deficiency is not dietary related, but more so it is due to an increased demand for magnesium by the body. This increased demand is due to higher levels of stress. In reality, stress creates an increased need for many macro- and micro-nutrients, magnesium being just one of them. So, if your horse responds to magnesium, the question is what else are they missing? It is vitally important to make sure your horse’s diet is highly enriched, ideally from whole-foods and not synthetic based supplements.
The diet can actually be contributing to anxiety on many levels. In many of these leaner horses, carbohydrate overload is an issue. The excessive carbohydrates via grains will heat up the body, creating a hotter horse and contribute to many pathological changes at a gut level. Given this, many of these horses’ anxiety is markedly reduced when grain intake is modified. They also tend to respond to a more fat-based diet, so inclusion of healthy fats such as flaxseed or hemp may prove of value. Fats can be used as an energy source in these horses, but are less heating to the body in most cases. Protein is a macronutrient that is also essential in this group, helping to repair damaged tissue and balance cellular function. Supplementing with a high quality protein supplement can also benefit many of these horses.
My approach, other than dietary, is to balance the stress response and also moisturize the body. In my harder-keeper I tend to rely on a few supplements given together:
- Cur-OST EQ Adapt & Calm – an Ashwaghanda extract that aids in balancing the stress response and cortisol levels. It helps to produce a state of calm in mind and body, while maintaining or increasing focus in the horse.
- Cur-OST EQ Stomach – a blend of high levels of a concentrated Aloe extract and Marshmallow root powder. This blend aids in soothing and healing of the damaged stomach lining, but both herbs also have moisturizing benefits to the entire body, thus also cooling in nature to a degree.
- Cur-OST EQ Green – this blend helps to promote a balance inflammatory support, whole food nutritional provision, but also has added Ashwaghanda to aid with stress and Anise to aid in digestion. The EQ Green can often be used alone in many cases, or can be combined with the EQ Stomach in others.
Through this herbal approach combined with dietary modifications, most of these horses respond very readily in a short period of time.
The Easy-Keeper Anxious Horse; Causes and Management
The easy-keeper horse can present often just the same as the harder-keeper, with all of the same behavioral and structural problems. However, most easy-keepers tend to be more quiet in nature, not as ‘hot’ and are more ‘internal’. They respond to stress in many cases with anxiety, but in most it is more subdued than the other group. The easy-keeper horse also tends to exhibit more head-shaking than the other group and may even have other stress-related issues such as allergies, uveitis, laminitis and ongoing foot issues.
Easy-keepers are metabolically almost the opposite of the harder-keeper. In the harder-keeper, we have a hotter animal, burning up body fluids. In the easy-keeper, body fluids are often retained in the form of fat or even stocking up conditions or general fluid retention. They get hot internally, but not to the same degree to where it burns up fluids.
Most easy-keeper horse anxiety problems stem back to a dysfunctional digestive tract. Digestive concerns are a primary concern in this group, not secondary. Things are just not working properly, which then creates inflammatory problems, immune concerns and overall cellular dysfunction. The gastrointestinal issue is the primary problem. The improper response to stress is secondary to this concern.
The diet is an area that needs to be addressed, much the same as the harder-keeper but with a few exceptions. You need to make sure optimal nutrition is being provided, again in the form of whole-foods rather than synthetic based supplements. Magnesium and other vitamin or mineral deficiencies may be an issue, but more often than not this problem is related to poor gastrointestinal digestion or absorption. It may also be related to poor nutrient provisions in the current diet. Supplementation may help, but in many, if you can correct the underlying gastrointestinal problem and the diet, the deficiency will auto-correct provided the diet is sufficient. Grain and carbohydrate overload can also be an issue in this group, but not so much from a heating perspective, but more one due to direct impact on gut microflora and acidosis, contributing to leaky gut conditions. In the easy-keeper, dietary fats can actually work against you. Most of these horses are overweight to begin with and adding fats will likely make matters worse.
In the easy-keeper, many times we have several issues in that horse with anxiety just being one of them. The anxiety or stress response is many times improper due to added health concerns that are pre-existing. As an example, that horse may have allergies, a tendon problem or ongoing foot pain. This creates and adds to the stress that is being encountered due to training and competition. All of this stems back to inflammation on a gut level.
My personal approach in the easy-keeper anxious horse is to modify the stress response, but to aim for supporting healthy digestion. If you can accomplish this, most respond quite readily, especially when dietary modifications are taken into account. In these horses, I tend to rely on two supplements:
- Cur-OST EQ Adapt & Calm (as outlined above)
- Cur-OST EQ Total Support – this formula helps to support a balanced inflammatory response in the easy-keeper horse while also providing a base of whole food nutrient provision and aids in correcting ongoing gastrointestinal dysfunction through additional herbs.
Concluding Thought on Anxiety in the Horse and Management
Anxiety and stress are common in the equine industry and impact a large percentage of horses. Training and competition are major contributors, but diet and ongoing health conditions also greatly contribute. If stress and anxiety are not controlled, health problems will develop which can impact soundness, ability to perform and impair overall health. Through modification of the diet and inclusion of proper herbal combinations, results can be quickly obtained, but you should not consider each horse the same in the approach taken.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN