Rachel O'Sullivan BSc (Hons)
At some point most of us will come across a horse that seems to be excitable, spooky or nervous regardless of the situation. Feeding these horses can be a nightmare, as it can seem that no matter what you feed, it results in uncontrollable behaviours, and what if you need to feed for weight gain but dont want to exaggerate excitable behaviour?
Before assuming the problem is feed related, there are a couple of things you should check such as is your horse reacting this way because he is pain? Horses tend to be very stoic animals (may not display signs of discomfort) and their reaction to pain often comes across to us as naughty behaviour so it's recommended to have your horse’s teeth, saddle and back regularly checked on a regular basis.
Another relatively common cause for unwanted behaviours is digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers or subclinical hindgut acidosis. Commonly thought to be a problem only associated with racehorses, it is now thought that up to 60% of leisure horses have a degree of gastric ulcers. If your horse’s behaviour has changed, or you have tried addressing the problem with no results, contact your vet to rule out any pain before assuming your horse is simply being naughty.Click here to read our fact sheet about feeding horses with gastric ulcers
Once you have ruled out pain as the cause for your horse’s behaviour there are several elements of your feeding regime that you can address to support his behaviour. When feeding excitable horses the aim is to reduce starch (often from cereals such as oats, barley and maize) and sugar (usually from forage) as much as possible. Enzymes in the small intestine of the horse quickly break down starch and sugar into glucose. This glucose is quickly absorbed by the horse and can be used a ‘fast-release’ or ‘instant’ energy. For some horses this type of energy is very important, i.e racehorses, some competition horses, and horses that struggle with their energy levels. However, for horses that can be excitable, spooky or nervous this type of energy is not required in large quantities and should be reduced wherever possible in the ration.
It is important to remember that it is impossible to feed a horse a sugar-free or starch-free ration. Sugar is very important to the horse as it is the only form of energy that can be used by the horse's brain. Both grass and hay contain sugar and starch and even reducing the amount of forage being consumed will never result in a totally sugar and starch-free ration.
Many people overlook the forage aspect of their horse's diet even though it is the most important factor. Ideally all horses should be fed ad-lib forage, but if this is not possible NEVER feed less than 1.5% of your horse’s bodyweight as forage per day. For example, a 500Kg horse should consume a minimum of 7.5Kg of forage per day, ideally from long-stem forage, i.e. grass, hay or haylage.
The arrival of spring
Most people are aware of ‘Spring Fever’ in horses and dread those first days of spring. Grass is naturally high in sugar and this is even more so during the spring and autumn months, with sugar being upwards of 20% in spring grass. These sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly and give the horse instant-energy. Some horses, for example 'good-doers', tend to use this extra energy for weight gain whereas others will exhibit this energy as excitable or spooky behaviour. To help combat this consider turning your horse overnight when the sugar levels in the grass are lower. Alternatively, you could invest in a grazing muzzle to decrease the amount of grass, and therefore the amount of sugar, your horse is consuming whilst not restricting his turn-out.
N.B. Never use a muzzle continuously for a 24-hour period as this can result in a lack of fibre through the digestive system, as well as behavioural problems in the horse.
Hay or Haylage
It is sometimes wrongly assumed that haylage is high in sugar, which is in fact not true. Due to the fermentation process during the making of haylage is actually lower in sugar than hay, and certainly lower than grass. Haylage, however, does usually have a higher level of digestible energy compared to most hays. Due to this higher energy level some horses do become ‘hot’ when fed haylage. If you have an excitable horse, and you need to feed haylage for respiratory or another reason, try feeding a high-fibre haylage, as this will provide a lower level of energy compared to a high-energy ryegrass haylage and should help to reduce excitable behaviour.
When looking at your horse's hay consider whether you are using an early cut or late cut hay. Early cut hay will be higher in digestible energy, starch and sugar compared to late cut hay. Also remember that if feeding hay you can soak it for a minimum of 3 hours to reduce the sugars the hay contains, making it more suitable for horses that may react negatively to starch and sugar in the ration. If you do decide to soak your hay remember to rinse it off after soaking to ensure no ‘sugary water’ is left on the hay when you feed it.
What about concentrate feed?
It can often be difficult to feed a horse that can be excitable or nervous especially if they are 'poor-doers', or are in high levels of work. Energy and calories are the same thing meaning to provide your 'poor-doer' with calories for weight gain you will need to feed a compound feed with a moderate to high digestible energy level. To ensure this additional energy is used for weight gain and maintenance, or for work, without encouraging ‘fizzy’ behaviour, the aim is to base the ration on fibre and oil rather than cereals and starch. When feeding the excitable horse, the aim is to feed a product low in starch and try to avoid cereals, especially barley, as this can exacerbate ecitable temperaments in some horses.
Saracen use highly digestible ‘Super-fibres’ in the majority of our rations, enabling us to reduce the starch levels and produce non-heating rations. ‘Super-fibres’include soya hulls, alfalfa and beet pulp which are broken down via fermentation in the hindgut of the horse by micro-flora. This is a slow process and releases energy slowly to support stamina through long-lasting, controlled energy and is therefore less likely to exacerbate excitable behaviour.
Saracen RE-LEVE® is a cereal-free, very low-starch feed designed for horses that react to starch in their ration. It is suitable for horses at every level, and particularly those that suffer from digestive health issues such as gastric ulcers. It can be used from the active leisure rider to top-level performance horses. Soya hulls, alfalfa pellets and beet pulp supply the calories reducing the reliance on starch in the ration. RE-LEVE® is fully fortified with quality protein, trace elements and yeast, as well as Vitamin E and selenium to assist normal muscle function.
Saracen CONDITIONING CUBES are barley-free, a cereal that can exacerbate an excitable temperament in some horses. EQUI-JEWEL®, a high-fat stabilized rice bran, has been carefully blended into the cubes to increase the calorific content through its high oil content, and to also provide a source of essential fatty acids which help to support healthy skin and coat shine. This is a non-heating formulation for all over body condition and optimal muscle tone.
ENDURO-PERFORMANCE provides long-lasting energy for competition horses that require stamina without ‘excitability’. The formulation contains a blend of crushed oats to support a higher energy requirement, but the emphasis remains on highly digestible "Super-fibres" and oil such as soya hulls and beet pulp. These support stamina through controlled energy release. A yeast is included to support calcium absorption, fibre digestion and optimum digestive health for horses in medium to hard work.
EQUI-JEWEL® is ideal for horses that require additional energy (calories) for maintenance of optimum body condition or the work being done. High-oil supplements increase the energy density of the ration instead of utilising cereals. Oil contains up to 2½ times more calories compared to cereals, and its energy is released slowly reducing the risk of excitable behaviour.
Feeding liquid oil is usually a messy process and many horses refuse to eat their feeds when high levels of liquid oil are included. In addition, because of the way in which oil is digested and metabolised, it increases the number of free radicals that are produced in the body that can damage healthy living cells in the body. To protect the cells from this damage, antioxidants, such as vitamin E, must also be included in the ration if feeding high levels of oil.
High-fat supplements on the feed market today, such as EQUI-JEWEL®, are pre-supplemented with antioxidants. This takes care of the increased requirement for extra vitamin E when feeding diets high in oil. High-fat supplements are also much more palatable and easy to feed when compared with liquid oil.
What if your excitable horse is a 'good-doer'?
If you have a 'good-doer' it is still important to ensure they are receiving adequate levels of vitamins and minerals as any deficiency could potentially result in unwanted behaviours. Like with 'poor-doers', the aim is to reduce cereals and starch in the feed, whilst ensuring micronutrient levels are being met. Feeds such as Super Fibre Cubes, or feed balancers such as Essential Balancer, will keep the calories in the ration low and provide the horse with all of their daily micronutrients whilst keeping starch and sugar to a minimum.
Dont blame the protein!
There is a common misconception that the protein level in the horse’s ration is responsible for causing excitable behaviour. Although horses can use protein as an energy source, it is very ineffective and horses will only do this as a last resort, for example, a starving horse that has no other energy reserves left to use will begin to break down his own muscles to use as energy for survival.
Traditional competition and conditioning feeds, that often have a higher protein level, also usually have higher starch levels and it is the starch that is usually responsible for the excitable and anxious behaviour, whilst the protein gets the blame! Protein is extremely important in the horse's ration for continued tissue and muscle repair and renewal and ensures good muscle tone, skin and coat health and hoof condition. No matter how much work you put in, if your horse’s ration is lacking in quality protein then your horse will struggle to build and maintain topline and muscle tone.
Need some guidance?
For personalised feeding plan for your horse or pony prepared by one of our in-house feed advisors, complete our Feed Advice Form. Alternatively, for some immediate advice on feeding a horse with an excitable temperament, call us on 01622 718 487.