There is a whole category of horse supplements (and now many feeds) that claim to help to keep your horse calm. So there is clearly a demand from riders to improve the behaviour of their horses but how should we go about that process? Aside from the obvious discussion around training methods, in our view there are two ways of achieving calmness:
Enabling the horse to react appropriately to its environment, behave rationally and appropriately to the situation it finds itself in. When achieved, this allows the horse to focus and concentrate. Meaning training is easier and a horse that can do its job!
Attempting to force calmness by reducing the horse’s ability to respond naturally to the environment around it. To us, forcing a horse’s brain to work in this way is better referred to as sedation and impairment.
So what is appropriate behaviour?
Most of us have sat on a horse that has spooked at a sparrow. To be honest if a pheasant flies up from under our horse most of us would understand a spook! The important issue is how quickly a horse recognises that a pheasant isn’t a threat; it should work this out in a second or so and quickly become calm again.
Imagine if every individual in a herd of wildebeest spooked every time a bird flew past or a grass leaf flapped in the wind! The whole herd would be jumping and spooking all over the place and when we see them on documentaries, the herd generally appears calm with a constant assessment of threat happening. If a true predator arrives on the scene the nearer individuals assess the risk level; are the lions hunting or just walking by? They may take action to protect their young, but dashing off in a blind panic isn’t what you see.
Appropriate behaviour is defined by the horse’s ability to respond appropriately to something it doesn’t immediately understand, but very quickly assess the risk (which is normally nil) and recover its composure quickly. Many horses really struggle to do this!
What happens when we sedate horses?
A test developed in Australia measured the speed at which a horse flees from a scare, for just the first two metres (about half a second). This is measuring the immediate reaction to something it doesn’t understand. Most of us would expect our horse to flee from something scary, but then very quickly assess the risk and stop.
The researcher (Jess Dodd) found that when not sedated, horses cantered away for those first few meters. Whereas if sedated with Acepromazine (a veterinary sedative also known as ACP or Sedalin) they trotted away; their natural spook response was dulled down by the drug.
Small amounts of magnesium added to a diet had the same effect. Magnesium-fed (sedated) horses also trotted away from the scare. We shouldn’t be surprised by this! Magnesium is used in horse and human anaesthetics and the mechanisms by which it sedates are pretty well understood by neuroscientists.
For more information about Jess’ research, click HERE.
If you are not a confident rider this muted response to a scare may be appealing – we are often asked to “take the edge of my horse” and to an extent, sedating with magnesium does this.
The problems come with the longer term response to this sort of drug induced sedation. These horses may be slower to react, but they are then so poor at risk assessing they will often spook at all sorts of things! Sometimes they are looking for threats everywhere, from behind hedges to underneath the dressage white boards. Anxiety levels increase and as a result, all sorts of behaviour may occur like: box or fence walking, separation anxiety, stopping at jumps and dragging riders around courses. You name it the list of different behaviours is very long.
If we impair brain function, can we then expect horses to make good decisions?
Can a horse be calm without sedation?
At the risk of treating our horses as if they were humans, just think about ourselves. The majority of us are calm most of the time, we are relaxed and functioning competently without the help of drugs to sedate us. Our horses should be the same. With optimised brain function they should have worked out by now that we keep them in a safe environment free of predators.
When we are confronted with difficult behaviour in horses (as we are day in day out when riders call our Advice Team) our approach is to try to understand what may be impairing good brain function. Factors such as the following are discussed:
Pain (from ulcers, saddles, injury etc.)
Diet (for example: too much starch, sugar or magnesium)