Published 14th June 2017
The difference between calming and sedation
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 behavior of their horses but how should we go about that process? 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 behavior?
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 recognizes 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 going for a walk? They may take action to protect their young, but dashing off in a blind panic isn’t what you see.
Appropriate behavior 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.
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. They should have worked out by now that we keep them in a really safe environment free of predators (except the odd lorry or tractor maybe).
Let’s compare them with those wildebeest again. Both animals evolved on open grassland and both face similar threats, so both should have a similar responses. So horses should be able risk assess without panic. When they can’t we have obviously done something wrong.
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. Let’s simplify it for now:
- Pain (from ulcers, saddles, injury etc.)
- Diet (too much starch or sugar, too much magnesium is generally our first point of call before we look at other areas.)
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Read more: Five Myths about Magnesium
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