By: Leslie Ballard
Say what you want about the “haves” and the “have nots” in the horse world, all equestrians are united in one key fact: no matter how much a horse cost, or how fancy their name might be or how much money their riders have won, all horses are capable of reverting back to nature at the worst possible time.
That’s why even experienced horsemen are occasionally left shaking their head when a “seasoned” performers balks in the in-gate, washes out in the warm-up, or throws a tantrum when loading onto the trailer. Some horses are just naturally wound more tightly than others. A spooky, anxious horse in the close confines of a barn or show grounds poses a risk not just to those around them, but to themselves. So it’s critical for horsemen to understand the root cause of consternation.
So what can you do about an especially anxious horse?
Vet it out
When a horse acts out, it’s easy to write it off as “bad behavior”, “rider/trainer error”, or a just a reaction to something they see or hear. Often times horses will take the opportunity to let you know when they are dealing with discomfort or pain. If there’s no apparent lameness, it could be an internal issue like gastric ulcers, a nutritional/metabolic deficiency, or a even a toothache. Before you think about the training process, have your horse fully vetted to ensure you aren’t exacerbating an issue.
Is there something in particular that seems to trigger anxiety? If you can pinpoint it, you can begin to address it.
Also, consider going back to the basics. Even experienced and advanced athletes can benefit from revisiting simple exercises they mastered long ago. Perhaps a shot of confidence is just what they need. Every training session is an opportunity to further establish trust—the key to any horse/human partnership.
You are what you eat
For most equine athletes the basic pasture-hay-grain diet is a good base but not enough to maintain metabolic stability. Nutritional deficiencies impact behavior and overall health, which is why it’s important to add supplements as needed to maintain balance. Supplementing essential vitamins and minerals will not only help balance the diet, but can have a major impact on behavior. There are products on the market that can replenish these essentials while providing natural calming effects.
For instance, The Perfect Prep Calming System delivers a full spectrum of supplements that are safe and legal under USEF guidelines. The products range from daily additives like Perfect Prep Training Day to stabilize blood sugar levels, to pre-performance pastes like Perfect Prep EQ Supreme, which provide a natural calming effect and peace of mind (for you and your horse).
“When my clients ask me to suggest a calming product for their horses I always recommend Perfect Prep’s calming system,” says Dr. Alex Emerson, DVM, a sport horse specialist based in Wellington, FL. “The variety of their system of formulas means that it can be adjusted to meet the need of every horse and rider.”
Wait, are you suggesting I drug my horse?
Absolutely not. We are not talking about powerful tranquilizers here. The active ingredients in the Perfect Prep formulas are largely endogenous and naturally present in the horse, so there’s no reason to expect negative effects on metabolic function. If you want to ride a robot, perhaps you should look into getting an Equicizer.
It’s never a good idea to give your horse anything without knowing exactly what it contains. So let’s take a quick look at what’s inside Perfect Prep supplements:
These products contain essentials like magnesium which naturally relaxes
the muscles and, along with vitamin B, helps ensure the nervous system is in good running order. As an essential amino acid, tryptophan delivers a natural calming effect better known to us humans as the “post-Thanksgiving dinner siesta”. Taurine, an essential sulfonic acid, stabilizes blood sugar.
“When a horse reacts to a fright stimulus in his environment, his flight response can quickly deplete his metabolic resources often producing an anxious horse,” says Dr. Bryan McNabb, DVM, partner at Lebanon Equine Veterinary in Lebanon, OH. “Perfect Prep formulas can quickly replenish these essential vitamins and nutrients safely, providing instant anxiety relief.”
Eh, I prefer to lunge my horse before a competition to get the edge off.
That’s a popular method and can certainly be effective, but there’s a very fine line between the right amount of warm-up and going overboard.
“Excessive lungeing and riding in preparation for an event is common in the performance horse industry often causing unnecessary injuries to the horse,” Dr. McNabb cautions. “A naturally acting nutraceutical calming product makes great sense to me.”
Lungeing should be done for the purpose of enhancing focus, not creating physical fatigue. A tired body does not necessarily mean a focused mind.
Nutritional deficiencies can be the source of behavioral problems, which is why it’s important to add supplements as needed to maintain metabolic stability. Think about yourself when you get ‘hangry’. Grab a Snickers, they say, and enjoy a jolt of instant relief…until your blood sugar comes crashing back to earth and you want to curl into the fetal position. Would you want to go out and jump a course feeling like that? You would probably look for an escape route, too.
There are a number of factors that can cause a horse to get overly anxious. For naturally hot horses like thoroughbreds, it’s unfair to expect perfect behavior and response all the time. But it’s critical to the health of your horse (and everyone around them) that you seek out the root of the problem and address it, rather that’s through a change in training tactics, lifestyle, nutrition or all of the above. Above all else, take the time and effort to fully understand your horse and build a trusting partnership.
When it comes to horses, some things are simply unavoidable. Good, solid horsemanship is not.