Q. I would like to know if there is any evidence that vitamin B supplements help the abnormally panicky horse or, if like people with panic disorders, they really need to be on anti-anxiety medications first and ­foremost. I'm guessing there is nothing available for horses. My veterinarian has twice suggested for my horse vitamin B and sacking him out (systemic desensitization). I used about 50 mL of a 100 mL bottle of injectable B when he was much younger (three or four years old), but there was not enough of a difference in him so I stopped. Sacking out is not required on this horse, as you can do anything with him, although he absolutely hates rugs and will kick and bite them. He gets over it, and I can keep them on him, but the rug seems to increase his aggression around feed time. He is a 6½-year-old Hanoverian gelding. I have hardly had him in any work.

My horse is arrogant and the boss of the herd, but he is also sweet. You can fully body clip him, even on the head, and he is very good--no twitches, no sedation. His panicking occurs when something has changed in the environment and he becomes terrified. He has put me in the hospital twice because of his panicking. He needs to be in work constantly but he is not and has not been for a year, as I have no safe facilities.

Jennifer Hoffmann, via e-mail

A. Concerning the efficacy of vitamin B treatment for panic behavior, I can't find any published reports of research specifically in horses. I can find only one older study on vitamin B in horses. In that work they explored the effects of vitamin B-deficient diets on growth in young horses. Their report did not include any mention that behavior was addressed. So I have consulted about your question with Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, who is an equine nutrition scientist at Rutgers ­University. She ­concurs that a relationship of ­vitamin B deficiency and anxiety or panic has not been documented in horses. But that doesn't mean that vitamin B is not a valid treatment for panic-prone horses. The marketing of vitamin B supplements for horses is likely based on the limited research on the relationship of vitamin B deficiency and anxiety in humans. It is quite well-accepted that for people suffering anxiety who also have a vitamin B deficiency, supplementation to restore normal levels of the B vitamins can be helpful. Remember that an important missing point is confirmation that vitamin B deficiency can contribute to panic disorders in horses, but if it is the case in humans and other mammalian species, it's pretty safe to assume this might be the case for horses as well. Unfortunately, it is not easy to determine deficiencies in animals, unless they are extremely low.

Concerning the sacking out, I'm wondering what exactly your veterinarian meant when recommending sacking out. I find the term is used to mean anything from literally flapping and rubbing a sack to "flood" the horse with potentially scary stimulation until it "just gets over it," to simply and gradually acclimating the horse to all sorts of new environmental stimuli. While the literal sacking out can work for a basically calm horse, my understanding is that for a panic-prone horse, the "flooding" can actually make matters worse.

A more common recommendation for a mildly panicky horse is to get it "out and about" under controlled conditions, where the horse can be exposed to all sorts of situations with gradually increasing levels of change and stimulation. You can take care to reassure the horse and back off from stimulation as needed to remain below the level that would induce full-blown panic. A strategy that works with some panic-prone horses is to take a trusted bombproof buddy along on excursions.

Having said all that, there are just some horses that can never be trusted not to have an unexpected panic and bolt. They might show great improvement and have fairly long intervals between episodes, but you just never know when they will fall apart. And since you have been in the hospital twice due to this horse's panic, it would be especially imprudent to recommend anything specifically for your horse in the way of behavior treatment without direct evaluation. It would be ideal to have a behavior specialist work in collaboration with a veterinary team who can evaluate for any physical problems that might be contributing to his panic.

You mentioned that your horse is more aggressive at feeding time. He could just be highly food motivated, but this could also be a clue that he might have gastric ulcers. We tend to see a variety of behavior changes in horses with gastric ulcers, including what often seems like a shorter fuse for panic, so it would be something worth exploring and treating.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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