Valerian for Calming Horses: What We Know

Some calming supplements for horses contain valerian, an herb thought to interact with brain chemicals. Here’s what science says—or doesn’t say—about valerian for calming horses.
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valerian for calming horses
Valerian is a tall, flowering grassland herb that most commonly grows in northern Europe and Asia, although is also found in North America. The plant’s roots are used for their perceived calming benefits. | Photo: iStock

Q.I notice that some calming supplements contain valerian. I assume this is an herb, but I know very little about it. Does it actually work?

—Via e-mail

A.Valerian is a tall, flowering grassland herb that most commonly grows in northern Europe and Asia, though it is also found in North America. The plant’s roots are used for their perceived calming benefits. In fact, valerian root has been used in traditional medicine for more than 2,000 years. The word valerian comes from the Latin verb “valere,” meaning “to be strong or healthy.”

Sometimes known by other names such as golden heliotrope, valerian is an ingredient in a number of human supplements for sleep disorders, in particular insomnia. Some people also use it to relieve anxiety and stress. However, limited scientific research supports these uses. It’s likely that these uses in human supplements led to its inclusion in equine calming supplements.

How We Think Valerian Works

Valerian is thought to interact with gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA, a chemical messenger that helps regulate nerve impulses in the brain). Studies have shown that acute or chronic stress in humans can lead to low GABA levels in the brain. Valerenic acid from valerian root might help reduce GABA breakdown, resulting in feelings of calmness, and neurologic compounds valerian stimulates also act on parts of the brain that process fear and strong emotional responses to stress.

While some studies in humans support valerian’s effectiveness in reducing symptoms of anxiety, others suggests it has no effect. Researchers have looked at varying doses for reducing stress in people, with some reporting reduced blood pressure and heart rate prior to stress tests. However, there were also indications that higher doses of valerian actually increased symptoms of stress. Scientists have not identified a consistently effective dose for people, and patients have reported side effects, including headaches, dizziness, and stomach problems.

Valerian in Horse Supplements

The same dosing issues exist in horse supplements containing valerian—I’m aware of several products that include anywhere from 36 milligrams to 2,500 milligrams of valerian root powder per dose. Clearly, this is a huge difference! And, aside from the fact that we don’t know what an effective dose for a horse would be, there’s also significant variability among different valerian root sources. This also affects efficacy.

If you decide to use a calming product containing valerian, keep in mind that it you might need to administer it for at least a week before you can observe noticeable differences.

Also, most people give calming supplements because their horses are tense, spooky, or on edge under saddle. While these supplements can help horses become calmer around the barn, there’s no guarantee you’ll see the same effect under saddle or when they encounter a stressful stimulus.

Use Caution

A very important final consideration for riders that compete: Most competitive organizations and associations consider valerian a banned substance.

Valerian also has some potential side effects. It should not be given to horses with kidney problems, and it can also interact with other medications. As such, always consult your horse’s veterinarian before administering valerian, especially to horses receiving other medications.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

7 Responses

  1. Would valerian be safe for jack donkeys? My jack is a rescue. He is afraid of anything new and very nervous in barn. Thank you

  2. I have an extremely nervous, high strung, TWH that I retired years ago due to a neurologic condition that amplifies his stress. He is scared of everything doesn’t miss a thing- please do not tell me do ground work – I have worked with this horse for 15 years now. He has taught me patience. I have tried everything B supps, tryptophan, magnesium- the ONLY thing that gives him a semi normal life is valerian . I tried changing it one time and everyone in my barn noticed instantly. He gets natural vitamin E, a joint supplement, msm, too. It is not cheap, I do it for him cause he leads a stressful life for whatever reason and this helps him tremendously. Remember he is retired, I did use it when I was riding him but that was only the last few years when we were doing short walks.

  3. I find using different essential oils have calming effects within moments & without the animal having to ingesting anything. Of course you need to know types of oils for horses and not all essential oils are the same – do your research. Use high quality oils and a company with excellent 3-party testing results.

  4. Why use an unproven and unreliable product on our horses? They are not guinea pigs. Because your friend says they do something or some article says, “try this” many horses have been subjected to unproven remedies. Use appropriate products on our horses.

    Case in point; a person on a forum just asked if she should use Absorbine Veterinary Liniment on hooves for thrush, (active ingredient: menthol). Hmmmm!

  5. Have used valerian for decades and find it effective for me for calming anxiety and as a sleep aid. Dosage on most herbals seems unique to the individual and as Old Europe points out, quality matters. No anxious horses, but do use an herbal combination to ease one’s aging joints.

  6. Hello horse lovers, hello everybody,
    as far as i know, Valerian belongs to such plants which are quite sensitive to their environment. Following, depending of the quality of its place of growth, that plant is able to develop the balance of chemical components responsible for health benefits, so its pharmacologic components as well as its effects may vary a lot.
    As a rough conclusio: no quality = no balance = no benefits – so care about the quality and be aware that environment matters.
    Best regards from Old Europe

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