In the past, it was common practice to feed starch, and in particular oats, as the main bulk of an equine diet. Modern opinion now suggests, however, that sugars and starch should be avoided as they can cause digestive problems and lead to over excitement in horses. To fully understand the best way to maintain a healthy diet for your horse and a calmer demeanour, we need to look at the different ways of providing energy via your horse’s diet and equine feeding.
Here comes the science.
Energy in food can be utilised by the body once it has been digested, or metabolised. Sources of energy include fibre, fat and carbohydrates. Let’s look at each one in turn:
- Fibre. Fibrous food is made up of complex structures and takes longer for the body to break down and so is known as a slow release energy source. In equines fibre is processed in the hindgut, or large intestine, by bacteria which ferment and break down the fibre into free fatty acids. These fatty acids are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used as energy. The process can take several hours.
- Fats. In a horse’s diet, fat is present in the form of oils. Oils contain twice the calories of carbohydrates and so the horse only needs to consume half as much. Fat is also a slow release form of energy.
- This starchy food is mainly provided by cereals in an equine diet. The digestive process breaks down starch molecules into glucose molecules which are absorbed straight into the bloodstream from the small intestine. This is quick release energy that is easily digested and immediately available.
Slow release energy sources are used by the horse when it works over time at low intensity, such as endurance riding. This type of exercise is called aerobic. The faster released glycogen provided by carbohydrates is an energy source that can be used during anaerobic, or high intensity exercise. This includes performing at speed when racing or cutting.
Why do sugar and cereal make my horse excitable?
As any rider knows, overexcited horses can be difficult to handle and unpredictable. We can’t change our horse’s boisterous nature but we can recognise that feeding them an inappropriate diet can exacerbate the problem. A better diet can in fact have a calming effect.
Cereals and molasses are sources of starch and sugar. A diet heavy in these nutrients can increase a horse’s excitability because of the fast energy release of glycogen. They experience a post carbohydrate sugar rush. Decreasing these elements and increasing levels of fibre which releases energy more slowly may improve behaviour.
What is the best food for my horse?
Diet needs to match the needs of your individual equine. Weight, age and activity levels are all factors that will affect your horse’s requirements. A horse that is very active and does a lot of high intensity exercise will need sugar and starch to provide glycogen for the anaerobic activity. In a less intensively active horse, this excess energy may manifest as undesirable behaviour.
Getting the balance right
In general, as long as the right quantity of balanced horse food is offered, this should cover all the necessary vitamins and minerals. It is worth bearing in mind however that magnesium is a particularly important supplement for fizzy horses as a deficiency can lead to hyper-excitability. There are other supplements available to promote calm behaviour. If these are used alongside a good quality feed then you may see benefits. If the feed is still high in molasses and cereals then the positive effect of supplementation will be negated.
Reducing sugar and cereal
If you are keen to limit the sugars and cereals in your horse’s feed then read food labelling carefully. In general, low sugar and starch are key selling points and so manufacturers will usually label this very clearly on the bag. Words such as calm, cool or collected on packaging is also a good clue. Do bear in mind though that calming food may also mean low energy food which won’t provide the calories that your horse needs to stay in good condition. Other ‘cooling’ food may just mean low energy, but still sourced from sugar and cereals so be alert to this. You are aiming for the appropriate amount of energy, just from better sources i.e. fibre and fats. Good feed companies offer nutritional helplines if you are finding it to be a challenge.
If you are looking to change your horse’s feed then do so gradually. Sudden changes can cause stomach upset. Introduce new food over 7-10 days. Even after the new food has been phased in, changes in behaviour can take several weeks to detect. Keeping a journal of behaviour can help you to track any improvements.
In addition to bucket feed; grass, hay and haylage can have an impact on the amount of sugar your horse consumes. During ‘Spring Fever’ the growth of sugar rich new grass can cause a new round of excitability and you may need a grazing management strategy. Hay and haylage can be too high in sugar for some horses. To manage this problem, you can try soaking the hay and then rinsing off the sugary water.
The key to feeding a good equine diet is balance. Whilst fibre and fat are preferable, glucose is necessary in small amounts for brain and organ function. Feed little and often and use feed containing cooked grains, which are easier to digest.
What if it’s not due to diet?
Before looking at any major dietary changes it is also worth considering whether there is another reason for unsettled behaviour. This could be caused by a new rider, new field companions or changes in exercise regime. During the winter if your horse is out less, you may find that he is getting more energy from his food than he can expend. This may require an adjustment to diet.
Getting it right is likely to take time, research and patience but overall, a good diet will benefit both horse and rider.