Calmers – Five Reasons NOT to use them (and 1 reason to)
Use of calmers, based on herbs and/or minerals, is becoming increasingly common. Some companies are making enormous amounts of money by marketing them as the solution to rider-horse problems, but there are more reasons not to use them than to use them.
- When we were younger, we were always taught that if you had to drug a horse to ride it then you weren’t good enough for it and that you should either improve your riding or change horses. If the horse isn’t going well, then find out why and fix it; don’t dope the horse to make it accept the situation. Unfortunately, the trend now seems to be toward spending more money to ‘fix’ the horse rather than to fix the rider.
- Side-effects: many calmers are mineral based – it is not advisable to give minerals of any sort orally to a horse long-term unless it had a genuine deficiency. Giving long-term magnesium without a deficiency just causes other problems, and there is certainly research out there that it can actually cause nervousness in horses if there isn’t an imbalance anyway.
Assuming the horse has a diagnosed deficiency (e.g. of magnesium, which is included in many calmers) then it may be a lot better to test and fertilise the soils to correct the imbalance, as ingesting the minerals via pasture is much more natural for the horse than a daily dose. Assessing the whole diet could also be important i.e. is an excess of one mineral reducing the body’s ability to absorb another? E.g. giving too much calcium reduces magnesium absorption, therefore the horse can end up deficient even if there is enough magnesium in the diet.
Many people also assume that any herbal product is safe because it is natural, but this is not true. Even something like Vitamin C causes side-effects in humans if we take it in large quantities, while the toxic effects of many common substances are well documented in horses e.g. garlic, turmeric, St. John’s wort. It is also not true that just because it is safe in one species then it is safe in another: a horse is NOT just a big dog or a four-legged human!
There is also the issue that different compounds can interfere with each other when mixed together, either making one of them ineffective, or increasing the side-effects. Reputable companies test to avoid this, but ‘backyard’ companies can just mix a bunch of different ingredients together and market it as suitable for horses, without testing.
- Assuming that the horse doesn’t have any deficiencies and the product is only working because of the placebo effect, then it is a very expensive way to achieve a better partnership with your horse. The placebo effect is when a product ‘works’ because you want it to e.g. some riders are more relaxed if they have given the horse a calmer, so they ride better, so the horse goes better whether or not the calmer has any physiological effect.
- Not all products are proven to have an effect anyway, but if the product is genuinely working then it will slow the horse’s reaction times – this is dangerous when jumping as a split-second reaction by a horse can mean the difference between leaving a leg on a fence (e.g. rotational fall) and getting over it safely. Ask yourself – “would I jump a horse that someone said was drugged?” There is less risk for dressage, but any horse can trip and throw its rider accidentally so this risk could be increased if the horse’s reaction times are slowed.
- The effects of many calmers on the market have not actually been tested on horses, but there is research to show that some that have been tested reduce learning ability – this is commonly known for traditional veterinary sedatives, but is a new area of research for other products. So, using a calmer can mean it take longer to train the horse properly; however, most people think that it will speed up training, which can mean the horse is given even more stressors than it is ready for and causing longer term behavioural problems.
There are of course more reasons not to use calmers willy-nilly, including the risk of detection of banned substances when competing, but the author can only think of one valid reason to use a calmer for horses (i.e. an actual calmer, not just supplementing with a mineral to resolve a deficiency).
And ONE reason TO use a calmer (on a horse):
If it is needed as part of a proper rehabilitation programme to overcome a particular problem. If you have been schooling correctly and your horse has no past bad memories, then it is highly unlikely that a calmer will be needed!
To sum up:
Dose yourself with whatever you like, but only use a ‘product’ on a horse if:
- it is really necessary
- you know the side-effects of using it
- it is part of a re-schooling programme (or to remedy a dietary deficiency), based on professional advice
- you use a product with proven effect (i.e. actual research, NOT social media ‘I use it’ claims)
- you have fixed (or are working on) any problems with your own riding. If you need to use calmers long-term (e.g. more than a month) then re-evaluate WHY you are using them, as something in your riding or schooling may still be wrong.
Note that just because you cannot SEE side-effects in a horse, it doesn’t mean they aren’t present e.g. a horse given garlic for 6-7 weeks can have damage to the blood cells (anaemia) before it shows any signs the owner can see; a horse given long-term or high doses of turmeric can have damage to the cartilage cells of its joints long before any sign of lameness occur; and a mineral imbalance may not show up until the signs are severe. This is known as ‘sub-clinical’ damage, and can occur weeks or months before clinical signs (ones we see) are obvious.