Feeding ‘Hot’ Horses

Addressing your high-energy horse’s behavior using diet might involve some trial and error. Learn what you should consider before adjusting his feeding program.
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Treat each horse as an individual when creating a feeding plan. | iStock

Q: I have a young jumper who generally has a lot of energy. He is in a consistent training program and shows frequently, so he has significant energy needs that must be met through his diet. How can I make sure I’m meeting his needs without providing an excess or making him even more energetic?

A: This is a great question, and you are certainly not alone. It’s a dilemma faced by horse owners in many different disciplines. How do we provide a horse with enough dietary energy to do the work he needs to do at the level he needs to do it, while controlling the mental energy or reactivity?

From a nutritionist’s perspective, the relationship between behavior and nutrition is not an exact science. Horses can be very individual in their reactivity to different diets. What works well for one horse might not work well for another horse, even if they compete in the same event at the same level. I think sometimes we get frustrated we can’t get one answer to the question “What is the best diet for a young jumper?” or whatever your discipline is. There are so many different feeding programs, even among the top competitors, and many reasons there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet. Riders might have specific preferences or biases about feeds. Regional variations exist in forage quality and availability. Riders could want a specific feel from their horses, and they might ride horses that respond differently to certain diets.

The diet component most often associated with horse behavior is energy, or calories, which come primarily from dietary starches, sugars, fats, and fibers. Horses immediately use energy supplied by the diet for metabolism and work in the form of circulating blood glucose, or the body stores it for later use as glycogen in liver and muscle or as fat in adipose tissue throughout the body. When the diet provides excess calories, most horses just gain weight while others become more reactive. That behavior change might be more pronounced when the dietary energy comes from starch and sugar rather than fats and fibers. That said, there are reactive horses and horses that are more laid-back regardless of the calorie sources. So, again, nutritional control of behavior is an inexact science and takes some trial and error.

Transitioning from a grain-based, higher-soluble-carbohydrate feed to a fat and fiber-added, lower-soluble-carbohydrate feed formulated for performance horses is a good place to start. If a horse is an easier keeper, a low-calorie ration balancer is another option. One great tool to help make sure you are not over- or underfeeding calories is to monitor body condition and aim to keep your horse at a 5 or 6 body condition score, adjusting the diet if needed to maintain a consistent and desired level of body fat stores.

Keep in mind there are many things besides diet that affect mental attitudes in horses. Discomfort, frustration, and insecurity can all contribute to “hot” behavior in horses. Performance horses are especially at risk for gastric ulcers, and the discomfort these lesions cause can lead to over-reactivity. Have a veterinarian examine horses to determine if there are possibly medical issues or causes of pain or discomfort, especially when an individual horse demonstrates an unexpected change in behavior. For example, horses experiencing gastric discomfort benefit from both medical intervention and implementation of nutrition strategies such as feeding small, frequent meals, including alfalfa hay in the diet, and supplementing a product containing marine-derived calcium proven to support gastric health.

Take-Home Message

When feeding horses to affect their behavior, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Before changing your horse’s feed, consult your veterinarian to be sure your horse does not have physical reasons to be reactive under saddle. If you are unsure about your horse’s diet, work with an equine nutritionist to determine how you can feed your horse to meet his needs without providing him excess energy.

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Written by:

Karen Davison, PhD, director of equine technical solutions for Purina Animal Nutrition, earned her Master of Science and PhD degrees in equine nutrition from Texas A&M University. Davison’s research included some of the early work investigating the use of added fat in horse diets. She spent eight years as an associate horse specialist with Texas Agricultural Extension Service, developing and teaching youth and adult education programs, prior to joining Purina in 1993. Davison has guest-lectured at universities and veterinary schools, is published in scientific research journals and magazines, has authored book chapters, and presented at regional and national veterinary meetings on equine nutrition topics. She and her family are involved with training and competing in the cutting and rodeo performance horse industries.

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