Coping with stress – naturally

  • When horses become unsettled through fear, discomfort or excess energy, they can become a danger to themselves and those around them. Whether you hold nature or nurture responsible, there are many calming supplements and alternative therapies available to help keep your horse on track.

    Herbal help

    The average paddock doesn’t have the range of flora horses would once have foraged for, which can result in an unbalance leaving your horse unsettled. You can help restore that balance by supplementing his diet with herbs.

    Herbs are natural remedies derived from roots, leaves, seeds, stems, flowers, or sometimes the whole plant, which can be added to your horse’s feed. Each herb has unique properties that affect the body in different ways.

    “Herbs divide into different groups – alteratives, diuretics, demulcents, nervines and astringents,” says Ellen Collinson, a leading herbalist and iridolgoist who has developed a range of powerful herbal formulations called Equiherbs.

    “As long as the problem is only one oftemperament, nervines and a demulcent are most appropriate. But people must realise the effect of herbs is not going to kick in inside 24hrs. It will take a while to get into the system.”

    Bach Flower Remedies, formulated in the 1930s, contain the essence of flowers, trees and shrubs that restores emotional balance. Each remedy is directed at a particular state of being, so your type of horse and his circumstances will affect which is most suitable. Rescue Remedy, a comforter containing essence of cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose and star of Bethlehem, is the company’s biggest seller.

    Choosing the right herb

    Watch what plants your horse dives for when out hacking. Although you may think he is just being greedy, he could be trying to self-medicate. A stressed horse will head for camomile or meadow sweet, both of which have calming properties, while gastric problems will send him in search of cow parsley.

    There are many herbal supplements on the market that combine a number of natural ingredients. Whether you use single herbs or a combination depends on your horse’s needs. Whatever your choice, it is vital you understand what you are giving and why.

    Hilary Self of Hilton Herbs emphasises the importance of establishing why your horse is stressed before you attempt to treat him: “Herbs can’t be used as a quick fix,” she explains. “You have to get to the root of the problem and then think about what the horse needs.”

    Some compound feeds contain herbs to aid wellbeing. Herbal Quiet Mix, from Allen & Page, for example, includes mint, garlic, clover and nettle that ‘may help with healing, respiratory problems and digestion’.

    Sophie Edwards, a nutritionist at Allen & Page, explains the benefits of their herbal feeds: “We don’t use herbs with a sedative effect, so they won’t actively calm the horse, but the feed acts as a general tonic and aid to digestion,” she explains.

    Assessing the cause of stress

    Examine your horse’s routine before investing your money in therapies.

    Environment: In an ideal world, horses would spend most of their time outside grazing, but this isn’t always possible. As a result, they may spend too much time in their stable and can become bored and stressed. Couple this with the tension of competition and a hectic stableyard and it’s hardly surprising many horses display behavioural problems.

    If your horse is grass-kept but still unhappy, then look at the location of his field (for example, is it near a busy road?) and the behaviour of his companions. Separating geldings and mares can achieve a more relaxed environment.

    Feeding factors: Horses are designed to eat fibre, which provides a slow but constant release of energy. In contrast, cereals give a quick burst of energy. Horses may show signs of tension or anxiety as they try to use up this excess energy. Combat this by feeding less cereal or by increasing exercise levels.

    The handler’s role: Never underestimate the importance of the handler’s role in the mental wellbeing of a horse. A nervous handler will make a timid horse more spooky while a bold horse may take advantage.

    “The handler must establish himself as someone the horse can trust, or he’ll constantly be on the look-out for danger,” says Lesley Skipper.

    The way you ride can also have a part to play. An unnecessarily strong riding may make your horse feel trapped, causing himto bolt or rear, while a sloppy riding technique can make a horse nervous or spooky.

    The key to the success of alternative medicine is to remove any obstacles to recovery first. Only when a horse is happy in his environment can you begin totackle the source of his problems – if indeed they still exist.

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