is feed making my horse hot

Q.At the end of this summer I started my 4-year-old mare under saddle. She’s been doing really well, especially in the walk and trot. However, when we canter she picks up speed and resists slowing down.

She was getting grass and alfalfa hay and 4 pounds of a low-starch, fairly-low-calorie textured feed. In an attempt to make her less “hot,” I’ve removed the alfalfa. Is there anything else I could do that would help her be less hot and focus better? Do you recommend a calming supplement?

—Allie, via e-mail

A.Starting a young horse is always an adventure, and it sounds for the most part that you have been having a good experience with your mare while learning who she is under saddle. Determining the best diet for a young horse starting work can be a bit of an experiment. While they’re often not working hard, just doing minimal amounts of walk, trot, and canter can be stressful for young horses because it’s new to them. This can cause some young horses to lose weight and need more calories than expected for the work level.

In some more sensitive horses, this stress can manifest itself as anxiety and result in several less-than-desirable behaviors. Sometimes this results from not understanding the questions being asked or it could be due to discomfort or loss of balance.

Check Caloric Intake

Certainly, overfeeding calories can make some horses “hot” due to giving them more energy than they need, which can result in overexuberance. In these cases, it’s a good idea to reduce the caloric intake.

Alfalfa does provide more calories per pound than grass hay, so removing the alfalfa and only feeding grass hay should have reduced your mare’s calorie intake if the total pounds of forage intake remains the same. You might also want to consider removing the textured feed and adding a ration balancer that has a 1- to 2-pound serving size; this will also reduce total calorie intake.

An important point to remember: You will need to pay attention to your mare’s body condition to ensure it isn’t negatively affected, especially with the colder winter weather demanding more calories to keep warm.

If your mare does drop weight, consider adding fat—such as oil or flaxseed—to her diet. Fat provides a lot of calories without the “sugar high” some other types of feed create.

Calming Supplements: Yea or Nay?

Personally, I’m not a big supporter of calming supplements as I have not seen enough good research data to support their efficacy. I think that in many instances, when a horse is behaving poorly, these products get used as a bandage. My preference is to try to determine the underlying behaviors’ cause before reaching for products that aim to dull or mask a horse’s reactions.

Ask for Help!

In the case of a young horse just starting under saddle who’s rushing at the canter and unwilling to slow down, I would recommend seeking the advice of a trainer experienced in starting young horses and is sympathetic to the horse’s way of thinking. While diet could play a role, approaching issues such as these from multiple angles is most likely to give you the success you are looking for.

Does the horse truly understand the aids to slow down? Is she struggling to maintain balance in the canter? Is her rider properly balanced? Is she experiencing any pain from the tack, bit, noseband, saddle, girth, etc.? How relaxed is she in her work? Does she show any subtle signs of resistance at slower gaits? Is she more responsive in one direction versus the other?

By investigating all possible causes of her rushing you’ll be able to better create a plan that will hopefully address the underlying problem and therefore reach a good solution that also furthers her education.