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Nervous Behaviour in Horses Disclaimer

Horses are animals that have a highly developed ‘fright and flight’ instinct, and this can make them nervous and unpredictable in their responses to handling and confinement.

In young horses, their sense of distrust or fear has to be overcome before they will settle down and relax. Nervous behaviour can be classified as ‘natural’ or ‘acquired’ in most horses.

Natural nervousness   Top
Certain breeds and individual horses have a naturally nervous disposition. For example, the thoroughbred and its crossbreds often display a naturally nervous, high spirited and easily startled nature. Warmblood horses generally are regarded as less nervy in nature, although individual can inherit or acquire a nervy temperament.

In young horses, immaturity, handling and stabling routine can culture a nervous disposition in some horses and not others. Certain families of horses have a nervous disposition, whereas other bloodlines seem to be less fearful or reactive.

Acquired nervousness   Top
In some cases, horses that have a naturally placid and ‘easy’ nature, can change their demeanour as a result of the type, time and amount of feed, poor handling techniques, change of surroundings, pain and physiological changes due to heavy sweat loss resulting in ‘spooky’ behaviour.

Management and control of nervous behaviour   Top
The control and handling of a nervous horse is a relatively common problem faced by horse owners, riders and trainers. Careful initial education or expert corrective handling to gain the animal’s confidence is an important aspect of developing a relaxed, reasonably predictable and ‘easy’ nature in any horse.

There are a number of feeding and management practices that can help to settle down a nervous disposition in a horse:

  • Reduce ‘heating’ and ‘fizzy’ feeds
  • Electrolyte replacement
  • Vitamin B1 and magnesium supplements
  • Vitamin E
  • Sedatives and tranquillisers
  • Other therapies e.g. amino acids and herbal treatments

  • Reduce 'heating' and 'fizzy' feeds   Top
    Feeding an excess amount of energy in relation to exercise needs can make any horse more ‘energetic’ and ‘above itself’, which is often interpreted as a nervy or fizzy behaviour.

    Other cool energy sources can be substituted in part, or as a complete replacement for oats, including rolled barley, copra, lupins, rice-based pellets, black sunflower seeds and vegetable oils, such as canola, corn and mixed oils.

    The time of feeding can have an influence on the hyperactive response to grain. Feeding horses within 3 – 4 hours of exercise can result in very nervy or ‘fizzy’ behaviour.

    Electrolyte replacement   Top
    Horses that are worked hard or for prolonged periods, particularly during hot or humid weather, or those that naturally sweat heavily, or develop ‘cow pat’ manure when nervous, can lose essential body salts which increases the risk of jittery, nervous behaviour.

    A specific electrolyte replacement should be given on a daily basis, to all horses that are exercised regularly e.g.

  • Light sweat loss; cool weather; fast exercise; exercise for 15 – 30 minutes add 1 scoop of Stressalyte morning and evening to feed
  • Heavy, dripping sweat loss; warm, hot, tropical weather; prolonged exercise over 30 minutes add 1 scoop of Humidimix morning and evening to feed
  • Very hyperactive horses that sweat heavily during work or hot weather, give one scoop in the morning and 2 scoops in the evening feed

  • Vitamin B1 and magnesium supplements   Top
    Vitamin B1 (thiamine) given at 50 – 100 times the daily recommended requirement may settle nervy, fizzy, shying or aggressive behaviour. However, not all horses respond to Vitamin B1 alone, and the addition of magnesium in a Vitamin B1- magnesium combination (e.g. Karma) helps improve the calming effect in most horses.

    When used daily in racing, sport and equestrian horses Karma will help to keep a horse’s mind ‘on the job’ and settle ‘good at home, bad away’ behaviour.

    Vitamin E   Top
    Clinical observations over many years indicate that high doses of pure Vitamin E given as a pre-competition loading dose program can exert a beneficial calming effect. However, it must be introduced in a step-wise manner to avoid the effects of lethargy, loss of focus and reduced awareness that occurs with sudden loading at high doses.

    A 500 – 600 kg horse should be commenced on 1000iu natural source Vitamin E, as in pure White-E, daily for at least 7 – 10 days. Then give 3000 – 4000iu White-E in feed on the morning before and the morning of racing or equestrian competition. There is no restriction on the use if Vitamin E in this way.

    Sedatives and tranquillisers   Top
    These preparations are available only from a vet and are useful to improve the safety to personnel and horses during management procedures that can frighten or cause mild discomfort to horses.

    During education and training of young horses, such as breaking into saddle, pacers in the cart, or gallopers through the starting gates, these preparations used under veterinary direction can reduce the risk of injury in very nervy, or hard to handle horses.

    Note that these preparations cannot be used to settle horses for racing or other equestrian competition, as they are detectable in a swab for periods in excess of 7 days. Consult your vet for advice.

    Other therapies   Top
    There are a number of amino acid derivatives and herbal extracts that are claimed to have a calming effect in nervy horses. Whilst some of these appear to have a beneficial effect in some horses, not all horses respond in a way that makes them safe, predictable and quiet to handle or ride.

    Care should be taken as some herbal calming products may contain prohibited substances that can be detected in pre or post-competition urine tests.

    The use of products containing Vitamin B1 and Vitamin E, such as Karma and White-E, have other additional benefits in correcting dietary deficiencies to aid metabolism, nerve action, muscle strength and stamina as well as imparting a calming effect.

    Article courtesy of Dr John Kohnke from ‘Health Care and problems of Horses, 9th edition’ published by Virbac-Vetsearch.

    Dr John Kohnke has over 20 years of experience in the health care and management of horses. He is well known for his ability to give sound, practical and up-to-date advice, which is sought by trainers and horse owners worldwide. As Technical Director of Vetsearch for 20 years, John had an opportunity to pursue research in equine nutrition, parasite control, lameness and respiratory problems.

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