As all showies know, getting their horses into the ring just right every time, is not easy.  One of the conundrums is getting the balance right between body condition and energy levels.

Most judges want to see horses and ponies in big condition, but at the same time able to show off their paces with energy yet calmness!

As a result many show horses are over fed & over supplemented to get them fat & shiny but they aren’t fit and they have too much energy for the job. Basically a lot of them are off their faces and of course are going to react fearfully to the atmosphere especially at big shows.

The common practice of lunging horses literally for hours on end “to work them down enough to get them in the ring” and/or giving them “something” to keep them calm are just not viable options.

Endless lunging is just plain cruel, and will no doubt contribute to excessive wear and tear on joints and probably early physical and/or emotional break down. It will also make them somewhat fitter so is self defeating in the long run.

Giving them “something” to keep them calm is a real can of worms.  Is it going to work?  Will it swab? Is it safe for the health of the horse?  Is it safe for the health of the rider?

The fact is that horses are all individuals and will react differently to the same calming preparation.  Some won’t react at all, some will have a negative reaction & some will react as required.  Swabbing is a deterrent for many competitors and there are others who are always searching for the magic elixir.  Safety for the health of the horse is not always a priority, but it certainly should be.  Finally safety for the health of the rider.  You really don’t need to be on board a horse who is spaced out and doesn’t know where it is putting its feet.

Natural feeding, herbs, flower essences and aromatherapy provides a really workable option for many horses and ponies.  But if you are considering going down this track, don’t just think of using a herbal “something” on the day, or you will be disappointed.  You need to address each horse holistically as an individual and give yourself plenty of lead time.

The starting point is the VF natural diet which is designed to provide all the essential nutrients through raw feeds and herbs.  Feeding is not just about calories, it is about making sure that the body in question has all the nutrients it needs for growth, maintenance and repair.  Every level of the body from the main systems right down to the cellular level is dynamic and constantly working to maintain homeostasis. Which is maintenance of balance between and within the body systems.

Obviously this includes the nervous system so it makes sense to keep it in as perfect working order as possible for the horse to perform at its optimum.

It is quite remarkable how many horses with so called nervous behaviour improve out of sight just by changing from a processed diet to a natural diet, which is incidentally what horses were genetically designed to eat.

The major feeds used in the VF natural diet are hays, chaffs, brans, wheat germ, black sunflower seeds, linseed (aka flaxseed), French white millet, apple cider vinegar, raw honey, Himalayan rock salt, seaweed meal, rosehips, garlic, brewer’s yeast, and for some horses a selection from oats, barley or corn.

Understanding each horse’s individual nervous system is an intrinsic part of management and training, and especially knowing that Chamomile and hardly any other herbs DO NOT SWAB …

Chamomile is beneficial for the horse whose nervousness reacts through the gut with loose, repetitive manures and is also a gentle yet effective nervine herb to help keep horses calm early in their careers.

Vervain will help to balance the horse whose nervousness shows up on the skin with increased sweating and even trembling or shaking.  Often these horses will also be sensitive in the skin and react more to insect bites than other horses.

Mugwort is indicated for horses that are reactive to virtually any change in their environment, sight, sound, wind, changes in routine especially on show days, horses being moved to new paddocks, cold and heat.

Rosehips will assist many horses who react in the kidneys, and urinate repetitively when nervous.  This has another down side as they can also dehydrate much faster.  Some horses don’t want to urinate at all when they are out a show.  The best way to fix this is to teach them to urinate on command by whistling when they are saddled before work starts at home.  If there is no stable to use, use a patch of grass or some old straw or hay.

The horses that over react through the heart and muscles is the adrenaline reactor.   They really do need professional help as there are a number of herbs to choose from.  Many of these horses are very tight in the muscles so Valerian is called for.  These horses may also be prone to tying–up.

Which brings us back to the subject of swabbing. Valerian is a herb which can be swabbed for (through its major constituent Valerianic acid) and has been for many years, so it is not going to be a suitable nervine herb to use for show horses.

The idea is to reform your horses’ nervous behaviour so that slowly, but surely the reactions to certain stimuli become less and less.  Being a horse they will never forget completely but a combination of sensible training, good management, natural diet, herbal treatments and body therapies will give a good result in most cases.


Nothing will work if you rush your training especially horses making the transformation from track to hack. The ex-racehorse usually has special rehabilitation needs, such as a liver and steroid detoxification program,  over a few months, before any serious work starts. This way you will get the weight on which will stay on and you won’t be trying to work with a basket case coming off steroids cold turkey.

Some showies may be put off using herbs because of all the  misinformation that has been circulated in the industry about them by the authorities in the past 15 years.

The fact is that they have their hands full trying to swab from a massive list of banned and prohibited drugs.  They know they can’t control herbs because developing tests for swabbing herbs is a lot more complicated than drugs, so the easiest way is to put the frighteners on them, which is what has been done.  A swab test has to be able to isolate a single constituent attributable to a particular herb.

Having said that I am very against competing horses which are under the influence of drugs or certain herbs.  For example a herb which is in widespread use as an alternative to “bute” – Devil’s Claw.  The swabbable constituent is Harpagoside which is unique to this herb.

If your horse needs bute or Devil’s Claw, it should not be at the competition.

Competitors should inform themselves about swabbing, the best place to look is the FEI Clean Sport Data Base, rather than asking around and being given a whole lot of unreliable information.


The best example of this is Chamomile has a reputation for being swabbable.  I have never in my 25 years of practice had a client report to me that they had a horse return a positive swab from Chamomile and I have never heard of any horse returning a positive swab from Chamomile either.

So work on getting your horses sound, sane and healthy and then compete them – no worries.

So many VF clients start out with a cynical outlook, or have simply been unaware of the real benefits of herbs, when properly used,  but those that go through with the whole deal are usually very happy with the results, especially the fact that they end up saving money on feed bills.