At this time of year there are many reasons why…
People can be quite demanding within horse-human relationships, often asking things of horses or placing them in situations that are very alien and stressful to the horse. Competing, fun rides, clipping, stabling, using poorly fitting tack or restraining gadgets, hacking alone or even sometimes just being ridden are all times where a horse can get sweaty, jumpy, pushy, vocal, restless, withdrawn or explosive.
Due to equine stress being so prevalent in domesticated horses, there is a huge availability for supplements marketed as aids to making the horse calmer. Supply and demand, there are literally hundreds of pastes, powders and liquids that are readily available for under £30 and they just wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have so many stressed horses. They have huge human appeal, as spending a few quid on a supplement is much more attractive than removing the cause of the stress with hours of training and practice, but do they actually work?
Currently, there are no published, peer reviewed studies to provide scientific evidence that the most common active ingredients work. Furthermore, several of the most popular ingredients of oral supplements are not on the FEI prohibited substance list, if they were effective at the levels being fed then they could be seen as providing a competitive advantage and therefore would be prohibited.
Magnesium is perhaps the most prevalent ingredient in equine calmers. There have been studies in other species but anxiety relief has only been shown in incredibly high injected doses, not the lower oral amounts that are fed to horses. Trials with horses have even shown behavioural problems to worsen when the diet was supplemented with magnesium. Ironically, another common ingredient in equine calmers, Tryptophan, has also been shown to cause mild excitement following low doses. Other ingredients such as B vitamins have no available studies that show they have any effect on equine behaviour. So why do people buy them?
It is widely recognised by Equine Scientists that there is a high placebo effect in equine calming supplements and in reality most probably don’t help solve the problems they are bought for. But teaching owners that removing the cause of the stress is the only sustainable option is not as palatable as a £20 quick fix, despite this being safer for them and also less stressful for their horse. Supplements, if they did work, are quite simply easier for humans to comprehend and that is what makes horse owners get sucked in by the marketing and fashionable recommendations, particularly if they want their horse clipped tomorrow! The ‘it’s worth a try’ or ‘easy life’ effect! However, the original problem can be perpetuated by using a supplement whilst continuing to take a horse over its stress threshold and omitting gradual training, the cause is never addressed and consequently the unwanted behaviour becomes increasingly difficult to solve. The old adage prevention is better than cure has never been so appropriate.