Our MythbustersTM series of blogs are designed to encourage people to think about common problems in a new way. The basic philosophy behind these articles is that if a problem is common, despite all the modern science and knowledge, then surely something  is missing in our understanding?

These articles are designed to challenge conventional wisdom. You may find some of their contents disturbing, even threatening but we hope you will approach them with an open mind. Feel free to add your comments and thoughts at the bottom. MythbustersTM are a discussion not a lecture.

If you feel there is a myth out there that you would like to raise and if you are prepared to put your head above the parapet, email us at


Today’s myth is:

Lethargy – The Great Evasion?

By Malcolm Green – Research Director at EquiFeast

It is quite common for us to get horse riders commenting to us that their horse lacks energy. On the face of it this is a very sound reason not to consider a calmer. But you would probably be wrong if you thought that!

As with many things a little serendipity opened our eyes to the fact that many horses actually use lethargy as an evasion. In my case the lucky break was with my wife’s horse Joker. He had spent a number of years as a riding school horse – in fact he is the horse I had most of my early lessons on. He hated it and during that time he perfected two things. The first was an incredible ability to buck even the best riders off if he didn’t want to go on the cross country course and the second was a wonderful but unenthusiastic plod round the school. When Sally bought him he continued in his well-practiced ways.

Even when we started to develop our horse calmers Joker was not a horse we regarded as a candidate. But he was available and easy to experiment on so various different formulations were given to him. And then we noticed that he started to become far more co-operative! Both his energy levels and his enthusiasm improved. He started to learn better, move better and even win the odd unaffiliated dressage and show jumping competitions. Interestingly the bucking has also stopped.

Is it all in the head?

As you can imagine riders with lethargic horses are not the most common people to knock on our door unless they also have other significant behavioural issues. But one such springs to mind and that is Brooke Gardener- Wollen who came to us with exactly this problem and she was struggling to make the times cross country at BE 100 events. Within a couple of weeks loading with WINNINGEDGE Silver she found Bonmahon Bouncer was more energetic and they have ridden three double clears and picked up foundation points at every event since. Now they have reduced the amount of starchy feed they give as this was not helping and now it is not needed.

So let’s consider how this may be working. My first thought is that we have simply helped Joker’s brain to function better. This enables him to concentrate and be more co-operative. The calcium and magnesium in our core Cool, Calm & Collected nutrients are all designed to help brain function. It is also possible that we are helping the muscles too. The bio-chemistry of muscles and nerves is basically the same involving all four of the major cations (calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium). So correcting deficiencies in any of these has the potential to optimise muscle function.

 Which of these is it? Well it is probably a bit of both.

Starch or fibre?

WINNINGEDGE worked for Brooke even when her horse was getting plenty of starch in its diet so starch appears not to have been an issue. But it can be. Soon after a horse eats starchy foods the blood glucose level goes up. The automatic response to that is to produce insulin which pumps the excess sugar away to be stored as fat. This lowers the blood glucose levels. Dr Kathleen Crandell of Kentucky Equine Research tells us that if your horse is burning glucose, as it will when working, at the same time as insulin is pulling glucose out of the bloodstream this double whammy can cause abnormally low energy levels. Hardly what you want in the middle of competition. This is most likely to occur a couple of hours after a starchy meal.

High fibre and oily diets don’t cause this sharp peak in blood glucose levels, don’t produce a significant insulin response and so don’t pull energy out of the bloodstream. So riding soon after a high fibre diet is not going to result in low energy level and it is absolutely safe. This is particularly useful during the loading period with any of our brain food supplements as any short term early improvements are likely to show about 45 minutes after consuming the supplement.

There are many other bonuses to high fibre diets including far less risk of ulcers, colic, equine metabolic syndrome or laminitis.


One other cause of lethargy is overtraining. Type it into Google and you will find loads of human references to this condition and a few of our customers have reported this problem and corrected it by changing their horse fitness training regimes. It’s worth considering if you have a problem.

We welcome your questions and comments on this article.


Withholding Forage Before Exercise: Dr. Getty Debunks a Harmful Myth

The horse’s stomach should be empty while exercising to avoid digestive upset. Truth or myth?

Myth. Mostly.

We don’t feel comfortable exercising after a large meal and we therefore assume that our horses don’t either. But define a “meal.” We generally think of a meal as feeding a commercially fortified feed—something that comes out of a bag. Or we may feed a meal of oats along with supplements. And in this instance, the myth is actually truth. This type of meal—low in fiber and high in feedstuffs that provide starch, protein, and fat—should not be fed immediately before exercising your horse. But forage should! It’s just the opposite: Restrict forage before exercise and you’ll produce, rather than avoid, digestive upset. Here’s why…

The horse’s stomach, unlike our own, secretes acid all the time. That’s right—it never stops. Chewing produces saliva, a natural antacid. But left without anything to chew, the acid will accumulate in the stomach and settle along the bottom (as water would in an empty jar). The lower portion of the stomach (the glandular region) has a protective mucus layer, but the upper squamous region has no such lining. Ask your horse to move, and the acid sloshes around, reaching the unprotected area, leading to an ulcer. And, as the acid flows through the small intestine, cecum, and large colon, it can cause further damage along its wake, potentially leading to colic and ulcerative colitis.

Allow your horse to graze on hay or pasture before asking him to move; 15 minutes ought to do the trick. You’ll keep him healthy and save him from physical and mental discomfort, which will all add up to his being more relaxed and receptive.

Dr. Juliet Getty has taught and consulted on equine nutrition for more than 20 years. At horse owners and managers will find a library of helpful articles, a forum on nutrition.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive reference book, Feed Your Horse Like A Horse: Optimizing your horse’s nutrition for a lifetime of vibrant health, is available in hardcover and CD-ROM (pdf file) through her website or at Dr. Getty also offers a free (and popular) monthly e-newsletter, “Forage for Thought”; sign up HERE>.  Dr. Getty serves as a distinguished advisor to the Equine Sciences Academy, which produces the Whole Horse Symposium. Contact Dr. Getty directly at or in Colorado at (970) 884-7187.


The well regarded myth that condemns thousands of horses to a life of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Stress is incredibly damaging. In humans it causes ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease and impaired work capacity. In horses it is much the same. Yet there are people who tell you that stress is a natural condition for prey animals like horses. This is rubbish.

The argument goes that, because they are prey animals, horse should be naturally nervous and spooky. Many of our horses are almost constantly in a state of unease. They spook at butterflies, flapping leaves and other horses. So we have accepted the myth that this is a normal condition for our horses. But actually prey animals need to be good at assessing risk.


These antelope are not running away from the lions. They have ascertained that the lions are not in hunting mode. They need watching not panicking about. Our horses should be the same.

So the first part of the “fight or flight” response is risk assessment.

Let’s remind ourselves what the “fight or flight” response is.  Primarily it is nature’s way of giving a prey animal the best possible chance of survival. When the animal firsts detects a possible threat it pumps blood to the “survival organs”. These are the brain, muscles, heart and lungs. The brain is crucial as it is the organ that is responsible for risk assessment. After that the other organs on the list come into play only if the decision is made to flee or confront.

It is important to understand where the blood for the survival organs comes from. I have studied a little bit of economics and economics can also be described as the science of limiting resources. The “fight or flight” response is a classic case of limited resources. No animal can afford to have so much blood and cell nutrients lying around idle that it can simply run away at any time. Instead, at times of crisis, it takes blood from the organs that don’t matter in the short term. Since it is clearly less important to be digesting lunch than to run away from a predator the organ that supplies this blood is the gut. We have all felt this effect. Imagine you are driving your car and a child runs out in front of you. You get an immediate tightening feeling in the stomach. This is the blood vessels of the gut constricting as your “fight or flight” response kicks in.

The “fight or flight” response is designed to last for a few minutes. Horses, for example, run about a quarter of a mile then turn and reassess the situation. They know that the laws of economics apply to predators too and they cannot afford to run that far without building up a crippling oxygen debt.  But if anything impairs the process the stress can continue for hours, days or months. So the gut is starved of blood and nutrients for prolonged periods. This upsets the gut bio-chemistry and leads to a host of digestive disorders from diarrhoea to ulcers and probably worse. It is no coincidence that humans suffering from ulcers are normally in highly stressful jobs or circumstances.

Anything that impairs the “fight or flight” response is itself a stressor. An injured animal will be far more stressed than one with the confidence in its ability to run away. After all there is no need to outrun the lion. You just have to outrun the weaker prey.

Common nutritional deficiencies impair brain function and that alone is enough to cause stress. This sort of problem may exhibit as mild symptoms like a little tension through an inability to concentrate properly, to being easily distracted (constantly trying to assess the risk in the environment but unable to do it properly). More extreme examples are stereotypical  behaviours like weaving, door kicking, windsucking and crib biting. Other common problems are separation anxiety, difficulty catching and leading and extreme responses to noises and other scary objects.

Our experience tells us that the most common deficiency that causes these problems is calcium and quite a way behind (but still important) are magnesium, tryptophan and B group vitamins.

The “fight or flight” response is designed to work for a few minutes at a time yet it is quite clear that a huge number of our horses show varying degrees of these “brain deficiency” symptoms a huge amount of the time. At this level it becomes an animal welfare issue. An example of this was a pony being treated for ulcers by Hampshire equine vet Gemma Rouse. Her patient had persistent ulcers that although it responded to drug therapy the ulcers simply kept coming back. Supporting the drugs with a chelated calcium based supplement enabled the pony to remain ulcer free.

The implication of all this is that a huge proportion of horses are getting diets that, despite claiming to be scientifically formulated, are simply not providing some of the basic nutrients required for normal brain function and this leads on to a whole host of negative consequences for both the horse and the rider. Increasing the levels of certain bio-available nutrients in the diet can have huge animal welfare benefits.



There is no science on horse calmers

By Malcolm Green, Research Director of Calinnova Ltd

I attended the Applied day of the EWEN Conference on equine nutrition at Cirencester in 2010. The applied day was designed to give students and interested horse riders a chance to hear the latest research about equine nutrition. Great idea – I hope it is repeated at future conferences.

One of the delegates asked a question which went something like this: “I am thinking of using a magnesium based calmer on my horse. What do you think?” The answer was something like this “There has been no scientific research on horse calmers so I would advise you not to use one.” Is this arrogant or what? I have to say I was shocked. Surely if the scientist has no knowledge of the topic in the question the ethical answer would be “We have no knowledge so we don’t have anything to contribute – sorry I can’t answer the question.”

The researcher was correct; there are no (or virtually no) scientific studies on horse calmers. But there is quite a lot of scientific information about the most common nutrients used in horse calmers and how they work in the brain. Since the nervous systems of animals as diverse as squids and humans and birds all work basically the same way the science that is there is definitely relevant to horses.

I am absolutely certain that the majority of horse calmers work by enabling the horse’s brain to function as nature intended. They do not sedate. They provide nutrients in qualities or quantities that modern diets often do not. Of course that last sentence will already have upset many nutritionists (and vets?) because they know that most diets contain adequate amounts of the nutrients listed below – or do they? That is a topic for another MythbusterTM blog. But remember the scientists tell you they haven’t looked at the link between these nutrients and brain function or behaviour – they have nothing to contribute to this debate unless they, like you, have anecdotal experience of calmers. If they had done scientific experiments on the link between nutrition and behaviour I believe they would have looked again at their methodologies for estimating nutrient requirements.

Let’s look at four most common calmer nutrients:

  • Magnesium

Magnesium has so many roles in brain function that it is difficult to decide which are most important. There are structural roles in the myelin sheath surrounding the nerve fibres, there are roles in providing the energy that the brain needs (brains are the most energy hungry organs in an animal’s body), there are roles clearing toxins like ammonia from the brain and there are roles in the production of neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers used to communicate between a nerve cell and the other cells it communicates with).

Does it matter that we don’t know which of these roles are important? Maybe different roles are important in different horses. What matters is whether an individual horse responds positively to a magnesium supplement or not and our estimate is that about 20-30 percent of difficult horses do benefit from magnesium supplements.

Magnesium is quite interesting. Of the four cations (sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium) it is the only one with no voltage gated channels. These channels provide powerful and effective transport of cations across cell membranes. So nerve cells have lots of control over three of the cations which is why these cells can achieve significant concentration gradients between the inside and outside of the cell. These concentration gradients produce the electrical “action potentials” that are used for the nerve impulse. They also enable calcium to achieve its important role in nerve and muscle cells (see below).

The lack of sophisticated control for magnesium means that a lot of magnesium in the diet can swamp nerve cells. This excess magnesium blocks calcium receptors and this effectively switches the cell off. So magnesium, in excess can actually sedate. Our experience is that the threshold that achieves this in different individuals varies quite a lot. So a little bit of care is necessary when using magnesium supplements. But as with most nutritional approaches undersupply is vastly more common than oversupply.

  • Calcium

Calcium has fewer roles in nerves than magnesium though it is probably more important for two reasons:

A lot more “difficult” horses respond well to calcium supplementation than to magnesium. This tells us that diets are more likely to supply inadequate calcium than magnesium. I would estimate that 80% of horses (both sensible and difficult) get less calcium in their diet than is ideal for optimum brain function.

Calcium is the key controller of nerve function and it only has positive effects. It cannot sedate.

In another sense it is no more important than any other nutrient. Whatever the limiting factor is that prevents a horse from thinking clearly, that is the most important for that animal.

To understand the importance of calcium the first thing to look at is the concentration gradients of the four cations. We have already said that the animal has little control over magnesium so concentration gradients tend to be close to 1:1. For sodium it’s about 15:1, for potassium about 30:1 and for calcium 37,000:1. Yes you read that right!

As a biologist with a bit of economics I recognise that to achieve and maintain a concentration gradient this huge must cost the animal a lot of resources. Calcium must be very important to nerve cell (hence brain) function. Again it doesn’t matter to a horse owner exactly how it works.

Of course we do know a lot about calcium and nerve function. Inadequate calcium outside the cell wall leads to spontaneous firing of nerves and short circuits between nerve cells. Both impair brain function.

More important still the key roles of calcium are controlling the absorption of neurotransmitters, initiating and controlling the size of the nerve impulse and controlling the release of neurotransmitters. Get the calcium wrong and the brain will clearly not work properly! This function of calcium as a secondary messenger is unique for such a simple molecule. Normally such jobs are carried out by far more complex organic bio-chemicals.

I have not covered the issue here, but our experience is that traditional calcium sources (calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, limestone) simply don’t have any effect on the brain function of horses. Chelated calcium is crucial for this and this highlights that chelates are not only better absorbed they also are easier and more efficiently managed within the body.

  • Tryptophan

This important limiting amino acid is a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is used by small parts of the brain involved in feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. Not enough tryptophan means, not enough serotonin which in turn means the horse can’t feel good and relaxed.

Serotonin in turn is the raw material for another important chemical – melatonin. This is produced when the animal needs to sleep. So there are two questions that I can’t find a definitive scientific answer to:

Can the horse control these chemical reactions and only make serotonin when it wants to and has sufficient tryptophan to do it from? and

Will too much tryptophan send a horse to sleep by forcing it make melatonin?

With the help of a large number of our customers we have now given quite a few horses some very big doses of tryptophan. Some horses get very relaxed and look sedated but when asked to work they work really well and approach it from a very positive frame of mind. I have seen a number of event horses do their very best dressage tests on high levels of tryptophan (far more than you would get in a syringe). These horses have always jumped well afterwards.

So the challenge with tryptophan is not whether it will work but whether any individual horse needs a tiny amount or a lot. Trial and error is required.

  • B Group vitamins

My gut feeling is that B group vitamin deficiency is not that common. But if it occurs then the B vits are mostly involved in converting energy from sugars and fats into the chemicals used for energy at a cellular level. As with the magnesium story anything that deprives the brain of energy risks producing bad behaviour.

People wanting to do their own research on this could do a lot worse than to buy “The role of calcium and comparable cations in animal behaviour” by Wilkins & Wilkins published by The Royal Society of Chemistry. And if you don’t want to read a fairly technical book just re-read the title!

The work I have done over the past couple of years has convinced me of three main things:

There are a number of nutrients in modern horse diets that are not supplied in adequate quantities or quality (chelation) for optimum brain function.

  1. Nutritional science has not looked at the link between levels/qualities of nutrients and brain function. Their standard digestibility tests don’t look for (and probably don’t go on long enough) to identify links between nutrients and organ function.
  2. Horse calmers work! The challenge for riders and owners is to find out which nutrients are most important for their horse given its unique biology and environment. All horses are individuals.

Please feel free to contribute to this debate by commenting below. You don’t have to agree with me!



  1. I enjoyed that post. This topic is really very intesting.

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