Probably one of the most common problems that most riders have is competition nerves not only in themselves, but also in their mounts.

Young horses, particularly fillies and many thoroughbreds are often stirred up by crowds and unfamiliar surroundings and suffer from show day nerves. Many compete in the event before the start, particularly if they are bad travellers, or are horses that lack confidence in the atmosphere of show day.

Obviously, handling and stabling routine plays an important part in the development of the condition in immature horses, although in many cases, it is of heritable or breed origin. Certain families of horses have an in-built nervous disposition, and often go to pieces when competing. Other horses are well-mannered and easy to handle at home, but on arrival at a showground, change their temperament completely, becoming nervy, stroppy, 'fizzy' and lack concentration to perform to their best.

The feeding of excessively high energy feeds can also make a horse playful and over energetic, which manifests as 'hyper' activity and charging and being 'above itself' during competition.

A well formulated, home mixed 'cool' feed is a practical way of tailoring a ration to a horse’s temperament and relative exercise need.

Natural Nervousness

The thoroughbred and its crossbreds, often display a naturally nervous, high-spirited, easily startled nature. These horses may sweat up easily and commonly become loose in the bowels when being transported or when being prepared for competition at the show grounds. In many cases, this is due to an anticipation or apprehension type 'fear' that can occur in horses that have a naturally nervous disposition and become unsettled by change in routine, during transport or when waiting to compete.


Immature horses also have a tendency to be nervy, particularly when not familiar with their surroundings or their riders. Many younger riders may not have the experience to pass on 'confidence' from the saddle when being ridden in competition. It is believed that many horses are able to sense 'tenseness' in a rider and therefore become less confident themselves.

'Normal at Home', 'Nervy at Shows'

It is not uncommon for a horse to behave well at home, but go to pieces when faced with competition on the arena. Education, corrective handling, experience and maturity often helps to settle a nervy temperament in these horses.

Use of Sedatives

A change in feeding, and use of certain nutritional supplements may help to settle down a nervy disposition and allow the horse to compete to its best. The use of tranquillisers, sedatives and other calmative type drugs is illegal under the FEI Rules, and use of these substances to settle a horse for competition risks a positive swab.

During early training, products such as Oralject Sedazine ACP paste (available from your vet), are quite useful to settle unruly, hard to handle and nervy horses for shoeing, floating, dentistry or general training. A short course may help to settle a horse down and give it more confidence to be able to handle the situations that it faces in everyday training and stable routines.

Under official competition conditions, these products can settle a nervy horse, but must not be used within 96 hours of competition to ensure metabolites are excreted before the time of competition. Other sedatives prescribed by your vet may require an even longer clearance time before competition. Consult your vet for advice.

Traditional Management of Nervy Horses

To settle nervous behaviour and help make a horse more confident during competition:

  • Arrange re-education and training if necessary.
  • Feed steam rolled barley, copra meal, sunflower seeds, and cooking oil as 'cool' sources of energy, and feed in proportion to the horse’s exercise needs on the day.
  • Provide a daily dose of Humidimix in 'nervy sweaters', during hot weather and when a horse is worked for more than 30 minutes daily.
  • Before and after travelling, or during hot weather, give 60-80mL of Recharge over the tongue and provide cool water to top-up fluids and electrolytes.
  • A regular supplement of Vitamin B1 (Karma) will help settle nervous behaviour when training or during competition.
  • High doses of natural Vitamin E (as in pure White-E) may be used in the pre-competition period.

Feeding 'Cool' Feeds

Feeding of oats and other energy grains is often a cause of increased 'fizzy' behaviour in horses. Oats are quickly digested to provide energy to the horse.

In these horses that become 'hyper' on oats, it is a good idea to replace oats with other grains, such as steam rolled barley. Over the years, steamed rolled barley has become popular as a less 'fizzy' energy source. Recent studies suggest boiling barley increases the digestibility of the starch in the small bowel, making it less 'fizzy' than uncooked barley.

Boiled barley, up to 6-8 cupfuls is a useful appetiser after a hard training or competition day and can replace pollard for a couple of days leading up to competition. When changing the ration to include a slow-release form of energy, it is best to remove the pollard from the ration. Rice pollard has a higher fat content than wheat pollard and higher digestibility of its carbohydrate, making it a less 'fizzy' form of conditioning energy.

Hint: It is a good idea to cut all energy feed to 1/3 on rest days to reduce the risk of 'tying-up'´ when the horse resumes work. Take two days to reinstate the full amount of grain. Always feed to the exercise level of your horse - cut back on grains and energy feeds if the horse is doing irregular work, particularly during the week, or when it is wet. The simple rule - no work - no grain!

Adding Fat to the Ration

Vegetable Oils Substituting grain and energy feeds with oil (fat) as a slow-release 'cool' energy source is becoming more popular in show and competitive horses. Vegetable oils are more 'energy dense' than carbohydrates and proteins in grains, so small volumes can be substituted to reduce both ration bulk and 'fizz'.

Fats take more time to digest and release energy when compared with carbohydrates. Therefore feeding polyunsaturated oils as an energy source can help minimise the risk of fizziness. Feeding fat can also reduce the volume of feed required, particularly in nervy horses that are picky eaters when away from home base.

Hint: When adding oil to the ration as an energy source, introduce on a step-wise manner starting with 50mL twice daily in finicky eaters, increasing by 50mL every 2-3 days up to required amount over 10-14 days, and reducing the grain accordingly. 50mL of oil replaces about 1 cupful of oats, pollard or barley in the ration.

Substitution Rates: One cupful (250mL) of polyunsaturated canola, sunflower, safflower or blended cooking oil has the same amount of energy as 6 cupfuls (1.5 litres or 700g) of whole oats, about 4.5 cupfuls of rolled barley, 3 cupfuls (750mL or 588g) of crushed corn. Oils have become popular energy feeds in endurance and eventing horses, reducing the bulk of feed these hard working horses need to consume to meet their energy needs.

Hint: A minimum amount of 1 cupful (250mL) of polyunsaturated cooking oil daily is recommended as a 'cool' energy source for 'fizzy' horses, reducing grains and pollard accordingly.

Sunflower Seeds and Copra Meal About 4 cupfuls of whole sunflower seed (2 cupfuls morning and night), mixed into a ration of 50:50 green and white chaff, combined with 3 cupfuls of rolled barley at each feed, is a practical 'cool' feed mix. 4 cupfuls of sunflower seed, or 1½ litres of copra meal, can be replaced by 1 cupful of pure vegetable oil. 2 cupfuls of oil, given as one morning and evening, will replace the sunflower seeds and barley as an energy source. However, it must be mixed into 75% lucerne chaff, or an additional cupful of protein meal added to provide adequate protein. Oils do not contain protein. As more oil is added to the ration, extra protein to meet demands should be provided by a cupful of protein meal per cupful of oil basis on a low grain diet.

Hint: Polyunsaturated oil (about 80mL daily) is also a good coat conditioner, especially when fed in conjunction with a Vitamin A, iron, zinc and copper supplement, as in 56g Feramo-H, or Feramo-H with Chromium daily.

Electrolyte Replacement

Horses that are working hard, particularly in hot weather, or those with a nervy disposition, lose essential body salts which can increase the risk of nervous behaviour. Heavily sweating horses secrete large amounts of sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium salts, which can deplete the system and lead to the development of a condition called 'alkalosis' of the blood, due to excess alkaline build-up.

Horses with 'alkalosis' tend to develop a 'spooky' behaviour, are thickwinded or 'puff and blow' a lot when working or on recovery, and tire very easily with work.

Hint: It is important to supplement nervy sweaters with electrolytes, such, as 1 scoopful of Humidimix in the morning feed, and 2 scoopfuls at night, particularly in hot weather or during hard training to settle down this type of nervy behaviour. The addition of an extra tablespoonful of magnesium sulfate (or Epsom salts available from a Supermarket or Chemist shop) morning and night, may be useful. A magnesium deficiency may also increase the risk of 'fizzy' behaviour. Obviously, proper electrolyte balance and replacement in heavy sweating horses, ensures maximum performance and prevents dehydration, particularly in nervy travellers during hot weather.

An oral liquid electrolyte replacer, such as Recharge, will help to rapidly rehydrate and improve coat condition in horses arriving at the showground after travelling. Some horses are nervy travellers, and over long trips, off load in a partly fatigued, sweaty and dehydrated state with a dull, dried out coat.

Hint: Administer 60-80mL of Recharge over the tongue just prior to travelling, and again on arrival when the horse is being groomed and settled at a showground. Ensure to offer the horse cool water to drink immediately after giving Recharge over the tongue.

Horses can also be conditioned to accept Recharge drink with a weaker solution for a few days until they accept the taste. Another drink of Recharge after competition often helps brighten the horse up and replace sweat loss before the trip home.

Vitamin E

Supplementation with high doses of natural Vitamin E has been used to calm show and race horses. Only the natural form of vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol), as in White-E, is beneficial for this purpose, as the cheaper synthetic forms (dl-alpha tocopherols) are more rapidly excreted. The synthetic forms, even when given daily, do not achieve the high blood levels of vitamin E that appear to be required to give a beneficial settling effect.

The use of vitamin E is not prohibited in show horses. Vitamin E, as in White-E, also helps to increase muscle strength and stamina in eventers, show jumpers, polocrosse and other hard working competitive horses.

Hint: For best results, give 1,000IU (1 scoopful) of White-E daily for at least 7-10 days prior to competition. (Do not suddenly give White-E in a high dose, as it may make a horse lethargic, and sluggish when riding). Then on the morning before and the morning of the competition, give 3,000-4,000IU (3-4 scoopfuls) of White-E in the feed.

Alternatively, this larger dose can be made into a paste with milk or water, and administered by syringe over the back of the tongue, just prior to feeding in the morning. It is important to give this higher dose at least 4-6 hours prior to competition, as it takes time to be absorbed and have a beneficial effect

In very nervy horses, a couple of courses may be necessary to settle them down sufficiently to keep their mind on the job. Try it out on a 'dummy' run at a training day to gauge how effective it is in settling down a nervy horse.

In heavy sweating horses, the combination of White-E and Humidimix to help counteract heavy sweat loss and nervousness, is widely used. By all reports this combination is helpful to settle down horses that are bad travellers, heavy sweaters or horses that are only nervy on competition day.

Vitamin B1

High doses of Vitamin B1, in products such as Karma, are beneficial settling down horses with nervous temperaments that respond to Vitamin B1 therapy. Karma contains high dose Vitamin B1 and magnesium, and has been especially formulated to ensure acceptance when mixed in feed.

Routine Use A daily dose of Karma will help to settle aggressive, shying, nervy behaviour in all types of horses, usually within 4-5 days of starting daily supplementation in the feed.

Hint: If the normal dose of Karma (1 scoopful in the evening meal) does not have a noticeable settling effect in 4-5 days, give 1 scoopful each morning and evening for 4-5 days. Most horses settle at the higher dose, which can then be reduced to the normal level to maintain the calming effect.

Injectable forms of long-acting Vitamin B1 are available from your veterinary surgeon. Some horses become agitated by needles, and many owners do not like giving needles. Injectable Vitamin B1 may contravene the FEI Rules, and can be easily detected in a urine sample if given within 72 hours of competition.

Hint: Once the desired quietening effect is established, Karma can be given on alternate days, or as required, to maintain a cool, calm and controlled attitude in horses with a behaviour problem.

Pre-Show Use A standard dose of Karma given in each of the two evening feeds prior to the show will have a beneficial calming effect on show day in most horses. If the competition is mid to late afternoon, give the two doses on the two mornings before competition. In rare instances, a horse may require 3-4 doses to settle it down.

In most cases, if a horse has been on Karma for at least 7-10 days, the calming effect will continue for 4-5 days after Karma is withdrawn. If you are working a horse in the mornings, add Karma to the evening meals for the first week. Alternatively, if you routinely work your horse in the afternoon or evening, it is best to give Karma in the morning feed for the first week of supplementation. Once the calming effect is established, most horse owners find it most convenient to give the daily dose of Karma in the evening meal.