Can feeding actually influence behaviour? Although some people will tell you otherwise, I think there is a huge correlation between feeding and behaviour. Other things count a lot too – training, lifestyle, riding style, routine, etc. But feeding has a definite influence.
Firstly, and most importantly, everything a horse eats results in calories, which result in energy. From grass to oats to fat to supplements, everything gives energy.
Some of this energy is expended in work (or naughtiness in some cases), some of it is stored in some form or another in the horse’s body.
We can influence this balance by controlling the type of food we feed our horses.
Horse food is sold by it’s protein content – 12%, 14%, etc. A lot of people take this value as indicative of how ‘heating’ the feed is. In fact, it is unrelated. A higher protein content is needed by horses in hard work, as protein provides the building blocks of muscle.
But, that said, protein can have an influence on behaviour. But it is not the quantity of protein that is important here, but the type. Scientists have found that certain amino acids (which make up different proteins) can result in aggression and/or hyperactivity.
Also, the two amino acid precursors of serotonin (tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan) can have the opposite effect – calmness and contentment.
You get two types of carbohydrates – sugars and complex carbohydrates. For a fizzy horse, sugars are to be avoided at all costs. Sugars are so easily absorbed, they cause a huge peak in blood sugar levels immediately following a meal. This will (as any mother will tell you) result in excessive energy and unwanted behaviours. Furthermore, the high blood sugar triggers insulin production, which brings the sugar levels back down but often overdoes it, resulting in lower than normal blood sugar levels and a corresponding energy slump.
A large percentage of modern concentrated horse feeds are comprised of carbohydrates – it can’t be avoided and they are needed. But giving small meals often and avoiding simple sugars (like molasses) in feeds will help to keep the blood sugar more stable. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and provide a steady trickle of energy into the system, much more desirable than a sugar rush.
As owners of hot horses, we should be particularly vigilant in trying to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Both hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) AND hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) are related to unwanted behaviours – aggression, distraction, anxiety.
Thus, an excitable horse should be on a diet as low in simple sugars as possible. Avoid molasses and high starch feed such as maize!
This is an interesting one. Fat actually enhances performance by providing fuel for an alternative aerobic energy production pathway. But that is a discussion for another day.
For the purposes of this topic, fat can be a viable, relatively slow release alternative to starch. Ray Geor: “Fat has long been claimed to exert a calming effect in horses, and there is at least one research study (Holland et al. 1996) to support the contention that dietary fat reduces activity and reactivity of horses. As well, many owners and trainers have reported that their charges are more tractable when maintained on a fat-supplemented diet. A decrease in excitability and nervousness might be the reason that a higher-fat diet helps in the management of horses with some forms of chronic tying-up. Less clear is whether the “calming effect” of fat is actually due to the fat itself, or because when fat is added to the diet there is a substantial decrease in starch intake.”
Vitamins and Minerals:
Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is one of those things that land up in supplements because a deficiency can result in nervous symptoms, the worst of which is convulsions.
Magnesium is another one. Deficiency (although rare) results in excitability and tremors.
Both of these are easily metabolised by the horse and won’t do any harm, even if there is no deficiency.
1. Supplement with tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (IMO more effective)
2. Avoid sugars
3. Supplement with fat (Half a cup of Canola Oil is what I recommend.)
4. Supplement with magnesium (preferably chelated) and thiamine. Even if they are not causing the problem, they will do no harm.