Horse Nutrition: What can change my horse's attitude?

There are some truths, but numerous misconceptions regarding nutrition and your horse's attitude. The confusion comes from the challenge of measuring what "attitude" really means. There is limited proper scientific research regarding the link between nutrition and attitude. Furthermore, many practices used in the industry to change a horse’s attitude often cause secondary side effects that can be detrimental to your horse's welfare, one of the worst is to withhold water.

Other non-nutritional factors that can affect behaviour are: drugs; herbs, genetics, exercise, environment, stress, temperature, past experience, stimulus and desensitization. Finally, horses have survived in the wild for years relying on their survival instincts; consequently, horses have an unbelievable capacity to perceive fear or tension. Even the slightest of human apprehension can affect a horse’s disposition.

Some apparent nutritional factors that may influence attitude are:
• The amount of calories consumed per day. This element is most likely the least concerning of all
the nutritional factors.
• Dehydration: A dehydrated horse will be either lazy or crazy.
• Vitamin and mineral status: Contrary to popular belief, vitamins and minerals do not make
horses “high”. In fact, the first symptom of vitamin deficiency is nervousness of which thiamine
(B1) deficiency is a key example. Vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in the overall health
and well being of the horse and their significance on attitude correlates to the statement - “a
healthy body is a healthy mind.” Keep in mind that a well-fed horse, especially when previously
fed a nutrient deficient diet, can seem to be excited or “hot” at first, when in fact it is simply
feeling good and healthy and is trying to express that to you.

Importantly, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, the principle objective is to provide a
balanced ration. More is not always better since vitamin A, D, perhaps K, and most micro-
minerals need to be fed at specific levels to prevent adverse interactions or toxicity.

The current trend in equine nutrition is sugar/starch or glycemic response (GR). However, this belief has been around for years as demonstrated by the old saying “he is feeling his oats”. An increase in blood sugar (glucose) through glucose uptake and starch digestion in the small intestine will cause insulin to be released. Accordingly, feed products that are fat and fibre based will provide calories without a GR, while products high in sugar and starch will induce a higher GR and may excite some horses.

Regrettably, managing (GR) is more complicated than just controlling the sugar/starch or Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) level in the diet. NSC is currently the term used for sugar/starch content. The NSC level in your horse’s diet is a primary factor influencing GR; however, other nutritional factors will influence GR, such as:
• The amount of NSC per feeding not just the % in the feed.
• The source of the starch. Is it from oats, barley, corn and etc? Each starch source is digested
differently and consequently altering the GR.
• The processing of the starch source. Is it whole, cracked, pelleted, steam flaked or extruded?
These procedures will affect the level of starch digestibility in the small intestine.
• Time of grain feeding in conjunction with hay consumption.
• The % of fat in the diet. Studies have shown that fat will reduce GR.

Finally, anything that irritates your horse’s digestive system can also irritate their attitude. Colic, ulcers and an imbalanced hindgut can all affect your horse’s behaviour. Starch and fibre need to be precisely balanced in your horse’s ration for optimum gut health. Quality fibre is definitely not a high-octane fuel for performance but it is required for optimum health.

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Comment by Equine Nutrition @ Purina on December 22, 2009 at 9:16am
We are going to do a video on body condition scoring, so that you can see first hand on one of our horses. It should be completed sometime in the new year.
Comment by Susan on December 18, 2009 at 8:41am
This is an excellent series. Thank you for all the detailed information. How do you do a body score on your horse?
Comment by Equine Nutrition @ Purina on December 18, 2009 at 8:28am
Feed tags (in Canada) don’t say everything but the information on the tag is regulated by the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency). Our recommended amounts on the feed tag indicate that the feed is complete and balanced (except maybe for some of the B-Vitamins) provided your horse is keeping an adequate body score (Henneke body score of 5/6). However, because horses are of various breeds with different metabolism, the amount of energy (calories) they need varies from one to another. For this reason, the amount of feed fed per day should always be based first on the individual body condition of the horse and not solely the NRC, level of exercise or the feed tag. By doing a proper body condition score of your horse, you will know if they need less calories, more calories or if their diet/ration is working for them. Some horses have an adequate body score on hay alone while others will need added concentrates. The horses that are on hay only or that keep their body condition on a small amount of feed need a complete vitamin and mineral balancer to make sure the minimum requirements are met. These types of supplements are available and they make it simple to feed easy keepers to keep them slim and healthy. Equilizer and Optimal are two vitamin and mineral balancers that can be fed solely with hay if your horse doesn’t need the extra calories to maintain weight. These products can also be used in conjunction with energy feeds when your horse does not need the recommended amount of feed to maintain ideal body condition. (Eg. The tag states to feed 3kg/day but your horse is maintaining weight on 2kg/day)

As for excitability, it’s important to point out that many factors will affect the attitude of the horse which could explain why your horses seem to react differently to different feeds. The amount of starch, sugar and protein in the diet can definitely be a trigger for attitude problems in some horses but other factors like: hydration level, vitamin and mineral status, health issues and, of course, level of exercise, turn-out time and previous experiences.

In response to feeding more of a low GI feed and thereby providing more sugars and starches overall, it is definitely the case when using inferior fibre ingredients, especially in economy feeds. I can only speak for Agribrands Purina Canada, in saying, that it is not the case for our products. As horse owners and passionate members of the Purina Equine Team, we can assure you that we do our best to improve your horse’s nutrition through the latest global research, on farm trials, state of the art quality control, world class food safety and more than one hundred years of experience.
Comment by Katherine on December 9, 2009 at 10:33am
This is really good and useful information. Thank you.

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