Horses feeling a little "barn fever"? Everywhere I look there are horses in rehab, stall rest, and confinement due to extreme weather. With this confinement comes some irritability and explosive behavior. Can calming supplements help? This article takes a look at the range of supplements out there under the "calming" or “behavioral modification” category.
I've spent most of my career mostly ignoring the "calming supplement" category, but I recently decided to take a closer look, because I feel a responsibility to my clients to have a well-rounded, well-educated opinion about a range of supplement options to solve a range of problems. The purpose of this article is to simply explore the range of ingredients listed as "calming" supplements and organize them into categories so that you have a basis from which to experiment. In this article, I am NOT going to argue the efficacy of any ingredient or product under the "calming" category. It's up to you to decide if the products work or not. If you have not already read "How to Trial a New Supplement" you should start there before purchasing any of the products listed below. I'll be digging into the safety, efficacy, and peer-reviewed research on these products this month at OCEN's project website Rate My Horse Supplement.
I want to be clear that any mention of calming supplement product names is not an endorsement. I am not in the habit of recommending calming supplements. I prescribe to adequate turn out in herd groups, varied exercise, and good training. I’m not saying that there is never a time for calming supplements, but I would only experiment with a healthy dose of skepticism. The placebo affect inside the horse-human connection is incredibly strong. I would also suggest using them SHORT TERM due to potential side effects. Ok...onto the calming supplement categories...
Common "Calming" Ingredients: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?
Calming supplements, like digestive, immunity and joint supplements, come in many flavors that I like to organize as "Animal", "Vegetable" or "Mineral". This is my entertaining way of thinking about supplement products. For example, within the "calming" or "behavior modifying" supplement category we can find minerals such as magnesium, vitamins like thiamine, plant (vegetable) based ingredients like raspberry leaf or CBD, and animal derived products like Ramisol. The incredible range of non-similar ingredients suggests that we don't really know how or why anything works. There appears to be no “direct line” to the equine brain.
I used a variety of trusted resources to better understand these ingredients. I’m mostly curious about each ingredient’s connection to the possibility of behavioral modification? Basically, what premise is this supplement ingredient based on? Because there is often very little to NO research on these ingredients in horses, I have to infer much from human use. I mostly used trusted websites such as WebMD, National Institute of Health- Department of Dietary Supplements, FEI EQUINE PROHIBITED SUBSTANCES DATABASE, and Google Scholar when "researching" these ingredients. I reached out to many companies for details about their calming supplement, but to date have only heard back from one, Foxden Equine, who makes Quiessence. Granted, I do not ask supplement companies the typical questions, so I’m not surprised that many do not want to answer. Some ignore me me due to claims of proprietary, some might know the answers but are embarrassed to say, and some have something to hide.
Tryptophan- An amino acid commonly found in meat and dairy products. A precursor to serotonin that is related to mood. (WebMD, January 2022). There is a body of literature on the topic of tryptophan for horses as a calming agent- or should I say not working. A well constructed study in Australia and published in the EQUINE VETERINARY JOURNAL in 2008, showed no behavior changes caused by high levels of tryptophan in the blood. A second peer review article published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science in 2017, showed no effect on startle test. Several papers eluded to an increase in excitability for some horses on tryptophan. Click the journal name links to see full articles.
Carnitine- An ammonium compound high in meat and dairy products; "used for Alzheimer disease, improving memory and thinking skills, treating symptoms of depression, and reducing nerve pain in people with diabetes." (WebMD, January 2022).
Melatonin- A hormone produced by the body. Commonly used to help humans fall asleep, or treatment of mental health. (WebMD, January 2022). There's some interest stuff about melatonin and horses under white or red lights, but nothing I could find about the efficacy of oral supplementation.
Taurine- An amino acid naturally occurring in the body and high in meat, fish and eggs. (Web MD, January 2022).
Ramisol- Sadly very VERY little info available except from Total Calm and Focus website! Their "Research" page is a total joke- seriously- read their "proof" article about 5 biathaletes taking ramisol. Shocking their claims for seriously little evidence.
Supplements heavy with these ingredients: NupaFeed L-Carnatine Daily Gold (17% L-Carnitine), Performance Equine Nutrition Focus Equine (unknown amount of any "calming" ingredient including Taurine), Perfect Prep EQ™ Training Day Powder, Ramard Total Calm and Focus (500mg Ramisol), Farnam Quietex II (2,500 mg Tryptophan), AniMed Via Calm (1,000 mg of Tryptophan)
Insolitol (a sugar)- A sugar used in humans for mental disorders such as panic disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. May cause diarrhea, gas, ect. Could not find evidence of its efficacy in horses.
Cannabidiol (CBD) - There's been a lot of interest in this ingredient for horses in recent years. There even happens to be a body of literature forming around its use in horses. Most of the published articles concern general safety and blood levels related to dose. I found a couple studies in the Equine Veterinary Journal that looked at "reactivity" of horses on CBD, but their results conflict with each other. Check out the results of the Google Scholar search HERE.
Valerian - An herb used for insomnia and anxiety in humans. Not recommended to take for more than 4 weeks. Could make you drowsy. Side effects are rare, but could include vomiting/nausua, upset stomach/pain (WebMD, January 2022).
Chamomile (German)- An herb used in ancient times to promote relaxation.
Vervain - A plant used for a surprising range of symptoms/conditions.
Raspberry leaf - Found in Mare Magic which strangely does not have its own website. Little to nothing on the internet could be found about its use to control hormones in mares.
Chasteberry - Most information available on chaste berry was related to PPID.
Other Herbs - I could spend another 12 hours trying desperately to find something, ANYTHING to support the use of so many herbal ingredients and describe the risks, but instead I'm going to leave these two resources right here...
"Herbs and Horses: Natural Healing?" by David W. Ramey, DVM *Click link to read.
"Feeding Horses Naturally: Nature vs NRC" by Dr. Mary Beth Gordon *Click to register for this upcoming webinar.
Supplements heavy with these ingredients: Equine Natural Care's Mellow Plus, CEP Gear Down, Mare Magic, Finish Line Easy Rider, Farnam Quietexx II (1,000 mg of Inositol)
Mineral (+Vitamins too):
Magnesium- This is the most popular ingredient in today's calming supplements. Sources and quantity of magnesium vary greatly between 200mg to 10,000 mg per serving. Considering how many forage tests I look at each year, I find it hard to believe that horses are truly "deficient" in magnesium as much as these companies would like to claim. However, I did find a small body of literature on the topic. Here is an abstract from a study done in Australia and published in 2017 titled "Magnesium aspartate supplementation and reaction speed response in horses". It concluded that there could be some reaction speed decrease in horses fed supplemental magnesium over NRC recommendations.
Bentonite Clay - The only ingredient in Daily Gold Stress Relief. They link this NIH resource on their website.
B Vitamins such as thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), B6, Cobalamin (B12) can all be related to “metabolism” in some fashion. Could not find good evidence to share about their use as calming agents.
Supplements heavy with these ingredients: Quiessence by Foxden Equine (8,000 mg Magnesium), Perfect Prep EQ Sane & Sound (unknown quantity), Performance Equine Nutrition Mag-Restore (2,000 g Magnesium), Daily Gold Stress Relief (bentonite clay), Ramard Total Calm & Focus (2,000 mg of Thiamine), Leg Up Calm (2,000 mg Magnesium Oxide)
As you can see, the list of calming supplement ingredients is very long, and it's easy to get overwhelmed by the variety and know where to start! My local feed store had about a dozen "Calming" supplements on its shelf ranging between $0.25 per serving to over a $1.00 per day. After digging a little deeper, I would suggest experimenting with magnesium first due to low cost and "not going to harm anything" approach. I was delighted at the customer service provided by Foxden Equine and appreciated their openness to discuss their supplement. I wanted to say "try tryptophan next", but all that I could find about its efficacy said NO. I'll be curious to further follow what researchers find about CBD use in horses though I wouldn't recommend it now due to safety and quality control. Please stay away from products like Perfect Prep EQ or Performance Equine Nutrition Focus Equine that do NOT give you a guaranteed analysis on the calming ingredients. Again, the purpose of this study was not to argue the efficacy of ANY of these supplement ingredients, but simply to get a handle on the enormous variety and claims of supplement ingredients toted as "calming". I hope that this article stifles your desire to try any of them, frankly, and to spend that money instead on training or other management changes.
I'll leave you with some of my favorite marketing slogans from these supplement companies. There is some genius level creativity going on with brand marketing!
”formulated to balance the behavior” from CEP Gear Down
”Angel herb”= finish line east rider proprietary blend
“Vitamin BeHave” from Training Day
Want to help develop Rate My Horse Supplement? Here’s what I want to know when researching supplements for Rate My Horse Supplement;
What are the credentials of the supplement’s primary creator?
What regulatory bodies oversee the mixing, quality control, and labeling of your product (i.e. USDA/FDA, AAFCO, Oregon Tilth, Safe Feed-Safe Food, HACCP, Non-GMO Verified, National Animal Supplement Council)? If not third party certified, how do you ensure consistency and quality of every bag/bucket leaving the manufacturing location?
Please supply 1-3 peer reviewed studies that support the need and dosage of your ingredients.
Where are your ingredients sourced and how do you ensure quality and consistency?
What is the company's refund policy for opened product? Do they provide samples free of charge?