By: Dr. Tom Schell, DVM, CVCH, CHN
Adaptogens are powerful in their ability to impact the health of a horse, with the term “adaptogen” being familiar to many owners. In today’s horse world, anxiety runs very deep, contributing heavily to ulcers, irritable bowel conditions, performance issues, a lack of focus, and many other problems. Many owners are seeking that one solution, that one fix, to remedy all of their horse’s problems. While this is possible in a few cases,the solution comes with a better understanding. As with all things, to properly implement something and gain results, it is best served to take the time to better comprehend the problem and possible solutions.
In equine competitions around the world, one main problem exists, and that is anxiety and stress in the horse. Interestingly enough, the issue of anxiety is not just restricted to the horse, but is reflective in our human society as well. One tends to create and fuel the other. Depression, on the other hand, is present heavily in human society, but not as common in the horse, unless there is complete boredom, isolation from other horses, or a medical issue. Both, anxiety and depression are reflective of mental health, and because the brain or mind is connected with the body, these states of mind impact health and even lameness. Never forget that the brain is what is responsible for all the cellular signaling events in your horse’s body, from muscle contractions to healing of wounds. If the brain is not working properly, due anxiety or depression, your horse’s body will likely be impaired as well.
One key aspect when it comes to mental health in the horse, as in people, is that ‘you are what you eat‘. The brain requires proper protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients to function properly. When your horse is not fed properly, its brain health will suffer and either contribute heavily to anxiety or depression, or make it more susceptible to these conditions.
With this in mind, if you are dealing with anxiety or depression in your horse, the diet you are feeding is the first line of consideration. Take the time to evaluate the diet, determine why you are feeding it, and look closely as to how that diet may be affecting your horse and its health.
Keep these things in mind when trying to manage any problem in your horse:
- You cannot supplement your way out of a bad diet.
- You cannot supplement your way out of too many rich carbohydrates in the form of grains and their impact on gut health, and even brain metabolism.
- You cannot supplement your way out of poor quality forage by feeding a synthetic vitamin-mineral product.
- You also cannot supplement your way out of poor quality turnout, socialization, and the never ending side effects of stall confinement.
These are facts and the more you follow them, the more you will likely have to spend for health care and lameness issues in your horse. Your veterinarian and your farrier will be happy to take your money for repeated issues, but if you would like this to stop, assess your horse’s diet and lifestyle.
Adaptogens and the Horse
There are hundreds of adaptogens. They include not just herbal extracts, but isolated amino acids and micronutrients. An adaptogen is any substance that assists your horse in adapting to stress and achieving balance, which includes recovery and healing. Among the many adaptogens, some are labeled ‘primary’ and some ‘secondary’, based upon their effect on the body of the horse.
Primary adaptogens directly assist the body in adapting to stress, usually by impacting the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the release of cortisol, epinephrine and other stress related hormones. When your horse is physically or mentally stressed, the adrenal glands respond to signals from the brain, releasing these chemicals into the blood stream. Cortisol, being one of the main chemicals, is anti-inflammatory in nature, but is also a catabolic steroid. Thus, it helps to reduce inflammation associated with a stressful injury. However, in cases of long-term stress exposure, Cortisol contributes heavily to tissue destruction and muscle wasting. This will negatively influence your horse’s body, as well as performance and stamina. Simply look at a Cushing’s or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) horse, which typically have elevated cortisol levels, and observe the impact it has made on their body condition and muscle tone.
Secondary adaptogens usually do not directly influence the HPA axis, but more so counter other negative pathways associated with stress. They help offset the “bad” things that happen, by helping to rebuild tissue or improve cellular function. They do not affect the stress pathway directly, but more so indirectly, such as sitting in a chair for long periods of time, creating stress upon your back and buttocks. A primary adaptogen would prompt you to stand up and eliminate the stress. A secondary adaptogen would provide a soft cushion to sit on. One solves the main problem, the other just counters a negative effect.
Why are Adaptogen’s Banned in Horse Competitions?
Anxiety and stress are big problems in many horse competitions and disciplines. For many horses, this may be a result of influences of the diet, lifestyle, or other factors. Horses can become unruly, hard to handle, lack focus, and often dangerous. Then come the health and lameness consequences, including ulcers, diarrhea, colic, poor performance and many others.
Given this extremely high frequency of stress and anxiety related problems, many owners curb these negative effects by turning to supplements and medications. Some owners routinely use sedatives, prescribed by their veterinarian, which not only are unsafe, but totally contradict their overall purpose as a medication. Often these medications are given daily, perhaps several times per week to settle a horse’s nerve and enable them to perform, or simply be ridden. This is like a person driving a car, teaching your child at school, or even performing surgery on you or your horse while taking a sedative or muscle relaxant. Not a good idea, and a good reason as to why these medications are banned. They create an artificial state of sedation, not relaxation, which is dangerous to both horse and rider.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding and proper usage, many adaptogen herbs have also been banned from equine competitions. Why? The ruling parties believe these substances do the same thing as a medication, which when improperly used open the door for danger.
An interesting fact is that in human athletes, Clean Sport organization permits the usage of several adaptogens, actually encouraging many athletes to utilize them. For the most part, they are seen as highly beneficial, not a performance enhancing substance. However, many upper level human athletes either understand the adaptogens, or have an expert guiding them in their usage, which improves outcomes.
The fact is that stress and anxiety are heavily present in the horse and in competition. To me, as a veterinarian, it is much wiser for adaptogens to be used properly, assisting in establishing a state of balance in a horse, than it is to use them to compete in an ill state of mind. I would venture to guess that a horse on an adaptogen is less likely to fall or injure themselves, than a horse that is not focused and flying off the handle. Creating mental and physical balance in the horse is not performance enhancement. This is only relative to what they are up against in their competitors. This is an attempt to restore health, and if you do that properly, performance comes with it.
However, the key factor here is proper usage of the adaptogens. Most owners do not take the time to understand what they are supplementing, thus not every adaptogen is correct for every horse. This incorrect “match” leads to negative outcomes, just like a drug interaction, however, it is nowhere near as severe or long lasting.
Choosing Adaptogens in the Horse
As I mentioned earlier in this article, nutrition and lifestyle are the two key factors in helping to reduce the impact of stress. An improper diet will create stress in the horse, so providing the proper diet will reduce stress, acting as a primary adaptogen of sorts. Allowing your horse time out on pasture will also reduce stress directly, being a primary adaptogen and change in lifestyle. It is truly amazing what these two simple things can do for your horse, both mentally and physically.
When stress and anxiety continue, for reasons beyond your control, adaptogens can be useful. Keep in mind however, just like every human, every horse has an individual constitution, governing how they react to food and life events. Some are laid back and put on weight very easily. Others may be high strung, over-reacting to many things and being more lean in nature. This is how your horse is, by nature, and that is okay, however, diet can still be playing a huge role in contributing to that nature. A laid back easy keeper becomes worse with an improper diet containing too many calories and not enough exercise. Likewise, a high strung horse that is burning calories becomes worse by a high carbohydrate, grain based diet, for many reasons.
Regarding adaptogens for the horse, there are many primary adaptogens that can greatly assist in helping to calm the mind, enhance energy, aid in focus, boost immune health, and even enhance performance. However, no one adaptogen is suitable for every horse, at least not without taking into consideration how that adaptogen will impact them.
Below are the top 10 primary adaptogens examples that are utilized and recommended in our equine patients. All of these adaptogens impact the HPA axis and mitigate the impact of stress, but they have other properties which set them apart. These other properties are what can either help or hurt your horse, all dependent upon their needs. For some horses, they are used alone, while in other cases, they are used in combinations. Synergism can be quite potent when used in combination, and this enables us to use lower doses of each. In other cases, they are used in combination to help offset potential negative effects of each other, which then creates further balance in the horse.
- Ashwaghanda: Manages anxiety, stress, and balance cortisol levels to produce a calmer, more focused, and well adjusted horse with no sedation. Also beneficial for cortisol support in the Cushing’s horse.
- Reishi (Ganoderma: This medicinal mushroom powder helps to support overall immune function, digestive health and promotes a balanced mood.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis: Soothes symptoms of stress, helps to relax, and boost mood. May also be used to reduce symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness and excitability and improving cognitive function.
- Eleutherococcus: Reduces anxiety, calms your horse and boosts overall recovery from stress and injury.
- Astragalus: Astragalus is used to protect and support the immune system as well asimproving heart function
- Cordyceps sinensis: Used to boost energy, endurance, and vitality. It can resist physical, mental, and chemical stress on the body and may help boost the immune system with its adaptogenic properties.
- Asparagus: Helps the body be more resilient to stress.
- Shilajit: A heavy mineral extract that has been used in its raw form for centuries as a rejuvenative type of adaptogen, helping to restore and rebuild the body, including the bones and joints.
- Bacopa: Improves cognition by means of reducing anxiety. It is also reliable for improving memory formation.
- Hawthorn berry: The results of research shows that Hawthorn strengthens the heart muscle, increases exercise tolerance, and supports a normal heart rhythm.