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Using Natural Supplements for Your Performance Horse
Madalyn Ward, DVM
Last month I took my 4 year old mule, Jake, to a training clinic. When we joined the other 13 riders in the ring the first morning, Jake was a bit overwhelmed. He was pretty wound up with all the activity and just a step away from an out-of-mule-body experience. It occurred to me that I had not given him any Rescue Remedy or taken any myself. I usually give us both Rescue Remedy when we face something new and challenging. I took Jake back to the trailer and we both took a dose. The rest of the morning went much better.
It was a long day and the heat index was well over one hundred. Jake gave his all and was a bit sore and grouchy at the end of the day. I took a little extra time to do a short Bowen session on him to help his muscles relax. In addition to his extra probiotics and algae at dinner, I also gave him an extra dose of noni juice to help with any inflammation from the extra work. The next morning Jake was bright and ready to go. I did not need any Rescue Remedy as he was very comfortable with his new surroundings.
I recently read an article in Practical Horseman about medicating performance horses and was dismayed to see that the supplements I used at the clinic would be considered illegal. The article specifically said, "The United States Equestrian Federation's drugs and medication rules are clear: Anything that's given to a horse, in any way, with the intent to alter the horse's performance, be it through pain control or temperament adjustment, is not permitted. That means anything you give your horse--homeopathic, herbal, or otherwise--that's meant to calm him or make him more comfortable is illegal unless expressly permitted by the USEF."
I feel we should draw a distinction between substances that help restore a horse to its natural physical, mental, and emotional state, and substances that actually increase a horse's performance beyond his normal abilities or mask pain. Since this can be quite confusing, I'll give a couple of examples.
Consider the difference between the flower essence Rescue Remedy and the herb valerian. Both have calming effects. The difference is that valerian can actual alter a horse's state beyond what is normal while Rescue Remedy could only restore a horse to its normal state of calmness. Valerian can cause a horse that is normally not very calm to become calm or even sedated. On the other hand, giving a Rescue Remedy to a horse that is normally tense or high-strung would not have much of a sedating effect. Rescue Remedy is effective in restoring a normally calm horse to its regular state under stressful conditions such as a show.
Another example is the difference between the homeopathic remedy arnica (not the herbal form of arnica) and the herb devil's claw, both of which reduce symptoms of soreness or pain. Arnica cannot mask pain, but will help a horse recover from muscle soreness more quickly. It will not, however, allow a horse to perform beyond its actual level of fitness. In contrast, devil's claw has some medicinal components that would act in the body like a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. When regulations allow for low levels of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as bute or banamine, devil's claw should be a perfectly acceptable substitute.
In these examples we are making a distinction between nutritional supplements or homeopathic remedies and herbal supplements. Some herbs, such as valerian, kava kava, and devil's claw are medicinal in action. Even though herbs are natural substances, using them to alter performance may not be harmful to the horse but it does violate the spirit of fair competition. On the other hand, homeopathic remedies and nutritional products can not alter performance but instead allow a horse to be his best. Homeopathic remedies work on a vibrational plane and can't mask pain or cause a horse to act in a certain way. Homeopathic remedies will never show up in tests because they are not physical substances. They also do not have side effects or harm the horse in any way.
Nutritional support from natural products such as probiotics, noni juice or aloe vera will not alter a horse's performance but they can help the horse recover more quickly and be more comfortable. Stress from showing will often cause the bacterial flora of the horse's digestive tract to change and this can cause discomfort and make a horse nervous. Probiotics are a natural way to bring back the balance and help a horse feel better. Noni and aloe are considered herbs but they act in a nutritional not medicinal way by giving the horse extra enzymes and nutrients to recover quickly from stress. Blue green algae is a concentrated nutrient which supports overall health. Algae can give a horse extra energy and help him focus better at home or on the road.
The best way to be successful with your performance horse is to train him carefully, give him the best nutrition, condition him to be able to withstand the rigors of competition and support him with natural products which do not mask pain or alter performance. I do not see how giving homeopathic remedies, flower essences or nutritional products interfere with the spirit of the medication rules.