Ashwagandha for modulating stress in horses

Support balanced behavior and overall wellbeing with ashwagandha — a centuries-old botanical.

Horse caretakers know all too well that by nature the horse is a highly sensitive and emotional being that readily responds to many forms of environmental stimulation and change. For the horse, stress comes from many sources: among the most egregious (in a horse’s mind) are unfamiliar noises and objects, transportation, social isolation, and changes to routine or exercise regimen. A horse’s stress or anxiety may manifest in a number of ways, including shaking, stall walking, kicking, biting, spooking or bolting.

Stress not only modifies equine behavior, it also can change various physiological responses in the animal including changes in heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate and hormone expression. Ongoing exposure to stress can result in behavior challenges, gastrointestinal distress and decreased immune response which could impair the body’s innate ability to defend itself against pathogens and infections.

Herbs of all types have been used in animal husbandry for millennia and the field of veterinary herbalism is both advanced and widely accepted. The botanical Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a woody shrub deriving from India, Africa and the Mediterranean, the root of which has been used as a health-promoting agent for over 4,000 years. Ashwagandha root is rich in a class of compounds known as withanolides, and also contains alkaloids, various fatty acids, sterols, chlorogenic acids, and many dozens of other compounds.

In humans, Ashwagandha root and its extract acts as an adaptogen, promoting nonspecific resistance to stress. Additionally, Ashwagandha has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anxiolytic properties and may help to improve relaxation and sleep, enhance reproductive health, support various parameters of cardiovascular function, and act as an immunomodulator.

Historical folk use of Ashwagandha with horses suggests the same effects noted in humans may translate to the equine population as well. A study was designed to evaluate the clinical efficacy of Ashwagandha root extract as an adaptogen against various types of stress in horses, to assess the immunomodulatory activity of Ashwagandha root extract against different types of stress in horses, and to study the effect of Ashwagandha root extract on antioxidant and hematological parameters at varying doses on horses exposed to different types of stress1.

A total of 24 horses were divided into four groups, one placebo group and three groups consuming Ashwagandha root extract. All the study animals ate a normal diet, and the Ashwagandha groups also consumed 2.5, 5 or 10 grams of Ashwagandha root extract daily. Under veterinarian supervision, the study animals were subjected to exercise-induced stress, separation-induced stress and noise-induced stress at specific intervals over the course of 21 days.

Results of analysis showed among the Ashwagandha groups:

  • A slight but insignificant weight gain
  • A statistically significant reduction in serum cortisol, a primary stress biomarker
  • Higher levels of serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes mood and feelings of wellbeing
  • Reduced levels of norepinephrine, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that acts a stress hormone
  • Reduced Interleukin-6 concentration, demonstrating reduced inflammation

Ashwagandha root extract demonstrated great value in modulating stress responses in horses exposed to stressful situations. All biomarkers assessed improved directly relative to the amount of Ashwagandha extract consumed daily, while outcomes for the placebo group remained unchanged.

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Chris Kilham is an author, educator and world traveler who has conducted medicinal plant research and sustainable botanical sourcing in over 45 countries. He has appeared as a guest expert on numerous radio and television programs, speaking about topics including medicine hunting, traditional botanical medicine and sustainability. Chris has authored 14 books on medicinal plants, natural products and yoga, including The Five Tibetans: Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy, and Personal Power, which has been translated into 27 languages. He is the founder of Medicine Hunter, Inc., and collaborates with companies, including KSM-66 Ashwagandha, to develop and popularize traditional plant-based food and supplement products into market success.