How diet plays a role

Diet is just one of many factors that can affect behaviour although for some horses, it can certainly help to manage and in some cases hinder excitable or nervous temperaments. In general diet can negatively affect behaviour in one two ways; firstly by suppling excess energy/ over-feeding and secondly, by providing high levels of starch (and sometimes sugar) which is in fact the most common cause of diet related excitability. 

  • Energy = Calories

    Energy and calories are exactly the same thing which means it is impossible to find a feed that is high in calories but low in energy. Calories is simply a measurement of energy and in human nutrition energy is measured in kilocalories, hence the commonly adopted term 'calories'. In equine diets, energy is measured in 'megajoules of digestible energy' which is often written on feed bags or labels as 'MJ DE/ kg'. Body condition is the best indicator of whether or not the horse's energy requirements are being met but for many owners, the thought of increasing the energy intake of an already excitable horse is a daunting one. However choosing the source of additional energy wisely makes it possible to feed for weight gain without compromising the horse's temperament.

  • Choosing the most appropriate energy sources

    The main sources of energy in the horse's diet are fibre, oil, sugar and starch (provided largely by cereal grains). Protein is not a primary energy source for horses and contrary to popular belief, will not cause or exacerbate excitability. High levels of starch and sugar, sometimes referred to as 'quick release' energy sources due to the relative speed at which are they are digested and absorbed into the blood stream, can increase excitability in some horses/ ponies although the reason for this is not fully understood. Oil on the other-hand is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy compared to cereals and starch free, providing a sympathetic alternative to mixes and other cereal based feeds.

  • The truth about sugar

    Although high levels of sugar can affect behaviour, compound and fibre feeds contribute very little sugar to the diet, even if they contain molasses. Grass on the other hand may contain up to 50% water soluble carbohydrate (sugar + fructan, the storage form of sugar in grass) and the same amount of energy as a racing feed on a kilo for kilo basis. This considered, turning out on lush pasture may certainly be responsible (at least in part) for putting a spring in your horses step!

  • Feeding Tips
    • Base as much of the diet on forage as possible
    • Balancers contain negligible levels of energy (calories), starch and sugar when fed at the recommended ration, making them the ideal option for horses and ponies that maintain weight easily on forage alone
    • Feeds do not need to be sugar or molasses free - instead check the starch content as this is far more likely to have an effect on your horse's behaviour
    • Avoid all mixes including those labelled as 'non-heating' - due to the cereal content mixes are almost always higher in starch than the equivalent cube
    • Start by choosing feeds containing less than 15% starch or for very sensitive horses, less than 10% starch
    • Choose fibre based feeds - if higher levels of energy (calories) are required look for feeds that are also in high oil
    • Pure oil can be added at a rate of up to 100mls per 100kg of bodyweight per day if additional energy (calories) is required. However simply adding oil on top of the current ration can unbalance the diet so you may prefer to choose a feed that already contains a higher level of oil and is suitably balanced with vitamin E. It may also take up to 12 weeks for horses to adapt to utilising a high oil diet so allow suitable time before assessing improvements in condition and/ or performance
    • Add any additional oil gradually (approximately 100mls per week for horses) and ensure the diet provides an additional 100iu of vitamin E per 100mls of oil fed - speak to a nutritionist for more advice on this
    • Feed according to the horse/ pony's current body condition
    • Do not increase feed in anticipation of increased work
    • Calming supplements may be helpful in some horses. Many owners have reported positive benefits after feeding magnesium and recently, a scientific study has shown that the addition of magnesium (magnesium aspartate) may influence behaviour in some horses. Herbs such as chamomile, passiflora and lemon balm may also helpful. If you are competing under FEI rules only ever use supplements (and feeds) that are BETA NOPS approved