Can Supplements help with equine behavioural issues?

Dietary supplements are the ‘go to’ remedy for so many equine conditions and problems.  There are multiple off the shelf and veterinary prescribed supplements and additives for a whole range of problems and conditions including:-

·      Gastric and gut health

·      Respiratory compromise, coughing and pollen-relatedissues

·      Joint supplements to promote the good health of joint components, joint fluid and cartilage

·      Hoof supplements to boost growth or help to maintain strong good quality horn

·      Skin supplements

·      Immuno boosters

·      Supplements that support performance horses in very hard work

·      Behavioural problems

Horses and ponies often have specific, defined problems or conditions, either acute or chronic which may require additional support not necessarily gained from a standard balanced diet of forage and hard feed.

The Spectrum of Supplementation

Adding something to your horse’s diet or sourcing a natural therapy can be short-term, for example, to deal with a defined or acute need such as a horse with crumbling and brittle feet benefiting from a boost to promote good horn growth.  It can become longterm so that horse may remain on a hoof supplement for months going forward bearing in mind that the hoof in its entirely takes between nine and twelve months to grow.  

Supplementation can be factored intothe diet of an older horse experiencing arthritic changes and, in conjunction with diet and exercise, would benefit from additional nutritional support in the form of Glucosamine and Chondroitin.

Some supplementation has a seasonal trigger. Your pony or horse may struggle with fly bites or react to pollen during the warmer months but show no adverse problems throughout the winter.  Conversely, horses with RAO – Recurrent Obstructive Airway Disease, formerly known as COPD – may experience no difficulties during the long, light days of summer when they are out at grass 24/7 but start to cough and exhibit nasal discharge when they have to be stabledfor the winter.  An appropriate supplement can help promote clear nasal passages and support correct stable management systems in caring for horses with this issue.   

Horses are sensitive creatures and dietary supplements and natural remedies are often an early consideration for animals who are exhibiting behavioural problems.  But before you reach for your computer to search for an appropriate solution, it is very important that you rule out other factors which may be the cause of the current situation.

Horses with behavioural issues

There are lots of things which can contribute to a horse behaving badly, some are fixable some may not be so.  But you should consider and rule out these two key points before you go any further.

1.    Pain.  A badly fitting saddle can cause behavioural problems as can an undiagnosed lameness or other health conditions such as ulcers, painful teeth or kissing spine to name but a few.  Unfortunately, horses cannot tell us where it hurts.  Some horses can become very subdued with pain or infection – horses are hugely good at hiding things – but others will be resistant such as refusing jumps or seemingly just downright naughty – bucking or rearing.  Pain should always be ruled out as the cause of errant behaviour in the first instance.  A basic routine blood profile can also bea good indicator of the horse’s current state of health

2.    Change or regimen/yard/ownership.  When horses move homes, they can become difficult and unsettled until they get used to the new yard or situation.  A sharp horse with an inexperienced handler or rider will quickly take advantage and become difficult, sometimes dangerous.  A horse on the receiving end of the wrong feed or the wrong balance between diet and exercise will also become difficult. What might start as high jinks can quickly deteriorate into engrained and unwelcome patterns of behaviour

Once you have ruled out any underlying physical or systemic issues or possible management problems as the cause of unwarranted behaviour, the next step is to try and isolate what the trigger points may be. Is it a handling issue confined to on the ground?  Is it a ridden issue?  Is it something specific such as anxiety about travelling or fearof clipping or worry about the farrier?

The horse’s memory

A key element of managing undesirable behaviour is trying to determine whether it has been caused by a past event in the horse’s history.  Horses learn through repetition and so a bad experience can create behavioural problems in future similar situations.  For example, a horse that has had a bad incident loading or travelling will quickly associate the trailer or lorry with that experience and the subsequent fear or anxiety. He may become reluctant to load or agree to load but travel badly.  His reaction to the unpleasant experience may be anything on a spectrum of mild resistance or disobedience through to temper tantrums and life-threateningbehaviour.  How the owner or handler responds to this is crucial.  An ill-informed, novice or aggressive person will only make the situation worse.  A pattern of repetitive behaviour often ensues and the more this continues, the harder it becomes to spiral up and out to better things, instead the spiral is downwards and worsening.

Supplements for behaviour

Most owners look for supplements for two key reasons:-

1.    High spirits. This could just be a sharp horse, on his toes, looking forward to the season ahead.  Something that just exerts a calming effect can make the horse more attentive and rideable which, for a competition horse, can make the difference between success and failure.  Calmers can be particularly helpful as the season changes so going into spring and the switch  to the colder days of autumn, most horses naturally react to these environmental differences 

2.    Fear and anxiety.Whether the trigger is fear of the clippers, a distrust of travelling, agoraphobia when hacking alone or horror at the arrival of the farrier, a well-chosensupplement can help support the horse and handler through a tricky situation

A system of behavioural management

Natural horse food supplements can work well but only as part of a holistic management approach that considers the animal in the round.  They are no substitute for good stable management practises and veterinary intervention which is why it is so important to consider the horse in his entirety and try to identify any underlying causes that might be contributing to the behavioural concern.  As part of a support package, therefore, natural supplementation which works with your horse is the perfect complement to other measures which may perhaps involve further training, rehabilitation programmes or a change or improvement to the environment.

All horses are different

Knowing your horse is a very big part of analysing why there is a behavioural problem.  Horses are as different fromone another as people.  If you took a control group of wellhandled youngster and presented them with their first experience of travelling on a lorry or trailer, they would all react differently.  Some would load at once and show no concern at all whereas others would need coaxing and patience.  There may be one or two that plant their feet and refuse to go anywhere near.  Understanding the character of your horse in his home environment throughout the changing seasons is a key part inunlocking the cause of behavioural problems.

Moody mares!

This is the time of year when those horse owners with mares brace themselves for what can be some fairly exciting times ahead.  The seasonal cycle of a mare is perfectly natural but can nevertheless, can result in some challenging behaviours that just could benefit from some supplementation to make life more comfortable for both the mare and their owner.


If you are having behavioural problems with your horse, your first imperative is to ensure that you remain safe.  Take qualified advice if you think there are underlying causes which need attention from a professional – vet, farrier, therapist, saddle fitter.  Consider your horse’s management and your own competency, talk to a trusted friend or instructor, don’t resort to social media where you will likely receive ill-informedcommentary from people who don’t know anything about you or your horse.

Design your own solution for the horse that you love and cherish.  This may include any number of a raft of measures – different handling, schooling, training, pain management or relief, even rehabilitationand alternative therapies– and dietary supplementation can be an essential part of your package.  As with so many management issues with horses, solutions are often multi-faceted and the other key point to always bear in mind is that one size definitely does not fit all.  What works for one horse may not work for another so always view each animal as the individual it undoubtedly is.