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Horse Sedation Drugs Explained

17th October 2017

Sedation is a common technique used by vets to calm animals and minimise the stress they undergo during routine procedures.

How does horse sedation work?

Sedated horses don’t lie down, instead their heads droop and they may need to lean against something sturdy for support

It’s important to remember that sedated horses can still deliver a powerful kick, so you must be alert even when the horse isn’t.

When to use sedation

Horses and ponies can be seriously affected by stress, and even routine surgeries and treatments can be very upsetting for them.

Sedation drugs and calming supplements protect both the animal and the vets by keeping the horse calm and relaxed.

The level of sedation will vary from horse to horse. Some animals will panic when having their feet trimmed, while others may be fine for anything less than actual surgery.

Some common reasons for horse sedation are:

  • Wound stitching
  • Rasping teeth
  • Surgical operations
  • Hoof trimming

However, using sedation isn’t something to be taken lightly.

It is important to remember that even light sedation can affect the way an animal’s body works and can impact on their heart and respiratory functions.

Although overdosing is rarely fatal in healthy animals, it can still be very dangerous.

This is particularly true if the animal is sick or weak from an ongoing illness or injury and you need to use sedation to treat them.

Always consult with your vet before sedating your horses.


How to sedate horses

In feed

A very common way of sedating horses, although also one of the slowest.

Sedation powders or solutions can be added to a horse’s normal feed and the advantage is, you don’t have to approach the animal to do it.

This is an excellent choice for anxious or nervous animals.

By syringe

If you feel comfortable enough getting close to the animal in question, you can use a syringe to feed the sedation drug directly into its mouth.

Slightly quicker than the feed option as you can ensure exactly when the drugs are administered, although you need to be wary of reactions from sick or injured animals while attempting sedation.

By muscle injection

This is a more reliable option than syringe or in feed, and it also works much quicker.

However, the downside is, it requires a higher does than injections directly into the vein.

This is the optimal choice if you need to sedate a horse quickly but the animal is too nervous or panicked to hold still for a vein.

It won’t have quite the same effect as a vein sedation but will help to calm the animal and relive pain.

Intravenous injection

This is the fastest way of sedating a horse and is the most effective.

The only downside is that you need to be able to get close to the animal and have it stay still enough for you to find a vein.


Types of horse sedation drugs


Although they are quite weak on their own, opiates can be mixed with other drugs to provide stronger and more lasting sedation.

Butorphanol is the most common choice for combinations, as it is good for pain relief as well as sedation, as offers very few side effects

It is worth keeping in mind that butorphanol can block the effects of other sedation drugs in horses, so if you administer other opiates, such as Fentanyl, it might not work quite as well as its supposed to.

Acepromazine (ACP)

This drug can relax and calm horses, but doesn’t offer any pain relief.

It can affect the whole body and there are two side effects to be aware of:

  • Drop in blood pressure – this drug is often used in the treatment of laminitis as it makes the peripheral blood vessels dilate.
  • Relaxed genitals – it can cause the penis of the animal to drop and, in some cases, this can lead to paralysis and penile trauma. For this reason, ACP is not advised for the sedation of stallions or colts.

It is also worth noting that, once sedation is achieved, increasing the dose will not increase the level of sedation. It will only increase the chances of side effects occurring.

ACP is a useful sedation drug as it can be mixed with other drugs, thereby reducing the risk of side effects.


The most widely used of horse sedation drugs, Alpha-2 acts by tricking the horse’s body into thinking it is producing too much adrenaline and so stops producing it.

The effect is then that the horse’s body relaxes and moves into deep sedation.

The most common types of Alpha-2 drugs are;

  • Detomidine – lasts around 40 minutes, can be mixed with butorphanol, for intravenous and muscle injections, also available for syringe use
  • Romifidine – lasts around 40 minutes, can be mixed with butorphanol, for intravenous and muscle injections
  • Xylaxine – last around 20 minutes, best for animals who only need light sedation

These sedation drugs also provide pain relief and are a good choice for short veterinary procedures.

Calming supplements

Because they don’t require a subscription, calming supplements for horses are a desirable choice for owners who need a quick and safe remedy.

Most commonly used to calm and relax nervous horses before transport or before grooming treatments, calming supplements can be quickly and easily administered.

Zylkene is probably the most widely used horse calming supplement and is often used to improve a horse’s coping mechanisms, without the need for sedation.

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