“Volatile” describes a horse that is unpredictable, which can lead to challenging or perhaps even dangerous rides. The majority of horses with this type of behaviour simply need some good foundational training to allow the horse to relax and accept the rider and their job.
Also, we need to remember that some horses are known to be more “hot-blooded” than others; for example off-the-track Thoroughbreds or Arabians, compared to many warmblood breeds. Adequate turnout and regular exercise can also help keep the horse more steady. However, there are some feeding strategies that could help in additional to excellent training.
Cut Back on the Sweet Stuff
In many cases a horse that is “high” is a result of elevated glucose concentrations in their blood. This can be thought of as similar to the period after a kid eats a candy bar. This sugar rush is usually short-lived and can result in a bit of a crash after.
Ideally, we should be feeding horses as naturally as possible – which we realize is difficult when we are off traveling to shows or keeping horses in a stall for periods of time. That said, we can aim to offer our horses forage (hay, pasture) as frequently as possible, and ideally even “free choice” (depending on the horse’s body condition score; a fatter horse should still be offered hay frequently, but perhaps via a slow-feeding hay net to limit overall intake).
Most hay is relatively low in sugar, but some varieties and cuts can be higher, so it is important to get your hay tested if you have a “sugar sensitive” horse which should consume hay with ideally less than 10% non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs).
The concentrate fed to the horse is usually the biggest culprit when it comes to contributing to sugar intake. Many commercial concentrate feeds for athletic horses have close to 20% or higher NSC, so look for a feed with less than 15% (or even lower if you can find it), so that more of the calories are coming from higher amounts of fat and fibre.
Spread It Out
In addition to finding lower NSC grain, you can also spread out your meals in multiple meals per day (upwards of five!) so that your meal sizes (and resulting sugar rushes) are smaller (see the previous article, ‘The Advantages of Trickle Feeding’).
Another suggestion is to not feed your horse too close to when you’re expected to ride. This way, the glucose absorbed from the feed has time to be metabolized and blood glucose levels are back closer to baseline. Sugary snacks can also add up, so keep those to a minimum as well.
There are also some nutritional supplements that have purported effects of calming the horse. This becomes a fine line, however, because if a true sedative effect is achieved, then should the supplement actually be considered a drug? And if it ultimately improves the horse’s competitiveness in the ring, should it be banned? That said, there are several legal supplements on the market with made with these ingredients.
Tryptophan is a common ingredient in many calming supplements, with the theory that the amino acid is a precursor to serotonin. However, in one study where 6.3 g of tryptophan was administered, which resulted in significantly increased blood concentrations of tryptophan, it did not alter behaviour when an unfamiliar object was introduced to the horse, in comparison to a placebo.
Theanine (not the amino acid threonine) is a well-known calmative found also in green tea. It has been shown to increase GABA, serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that promote relaxation and decrease anxiety in humans.
Magnesium is often a component of many calming supplements, and while it appears to be useful in humans, much of the equine research is inconclusive (one study reported no benefits, another only a small improvement). Magnesium is also fairly plentiful in equine diets (though there are questions about its bioavailability).
Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) has been shown to treat agitated behaviour in elderly humans. A blend of ingredients containing this herb, along with theanine (Pro Kalm) was shown to reduce a negative behaviour score when fed over three days. Another study showed that a supplement containing lemon balm (Calm and Collected) had the same effectiveness as ACE (Acepromazine) on several equine activities, although it is designed to be offered prior to exercise vs. daily.
It should be noted that these supplements also contain passion flower which is a banned substance on USEF/FEI lists. Valerian (Valeriana officianalis; valerenic acid) is found in many herbal calming supplements for humans as well as horses, although research into its effectiveness on behaviour in horses is lacking. Valerian is also a prohibited substance. While these ingredients should be withheld prior to competition, these supplements may still be useful during the training program for your horse.
Keeping a horse steady and calm for riding results from a combination of regular exercise and turnout as well as a low-sugar diet. Supplements may be warranted in some cases, but please remember to check with your local competition regulations to ensure your ingredients wouldn’t cause an issue!