Important equine health tips for managing nervous horse behaviors-Part 2
By: Dr. Amy M Gill
Ration management, and key ingredients can encourage healthier equine temperaments and “hind gut,” digestion.
Forage is the basis of the equine diet. Horses should always have ample amounts of the best quality hay available at all times other than when feed must be reduced or withheld prior to a competition. The horse is a grazer, with a digestive tract equipped to digest and utilize high levels of plant fiber. The cecum and colon are collectively known as the” hind gut”. The “hind gut” houses billions of microbes and protozoa that produce enzymes which breakdown or ferment plant fiber. These microbes are essential to the horse, since the horse itself does not produce these enzymes. The bi-products of microbial fermentation of forage provide the horse with a source of energy and micro-nutrients.
A good forage choice for horses is a grass and legume mixed hay because it provides a nice balance of micronutrients, protein and fat. Quality of hay is determined by the stage of maturity when cut, growing conditions, amount of fertilization of the field in which it is grown and how it is prepared and stored after being cut. Which cutting the hay is from is usually irrelevant as any cutting can turn out good or bad depending on these factors. Finding the highest quality forage in your area is important to give your horse the most nutrition possible from their hay.
Proper management regarding concentrates is also important. Concentrate feeding should be broken up into as many small feedings as possible, as research has shown the capacity to overload the hindgut with grain occurs when the horse is fed more than 0.4 % of its body weight at any on feeding. For the 1000 lb. animal, this translates to no more than 4-5 lb. of grain mix per feeding. According to the National Research Council, horses in heavy training may require as much as 3% of their bodyweight per day in dry matter (feed and forage) with proportions of 65% concentrate and 35% as forage. Therefore, the 1000 lb. horse may require 30 lb. of total feed with perhaps 19.5 lb. of concentrate and only 10.5 lb. of hay. If we abide by the rule of no more than 4-5 lb. of concentrate fed at one time, horses consuming this amount of concentrated feed should be fed a minimum of four times daily. Increasing the feeding frequency of concentrate may also encourage the finicky eater to nibble hay more often and actually consume more hay. A study at the University of Kentucky showed that horses fed eight concentrate meals per day spent more time eating hay than horses fed only two times per day. These horses also tended to eat more hay and this could be useful when trying to maintain or encourage weight gain.
The ingredients fed to horses can also make a difference in how many calories it receives and a nervous horse can be notorious for needing more weight. One of the most popular feeding ingredients is oats, which are very palatable to horses and fairly safe to feed due to the fiber content of the hull and the relatively easy digestion of oat starch. Unfortunately, oats contain the lowest amount of calories of all the grains fed to horses, and if a horse is having trouble keeping weight on, a straight oat and hay diet will do little to improve the situation. In addition, oats average about 43% starch which can have a negative impact on the starch load as mentioned in Part 1. Commercial concentrate mixes are usually composed of a variety of grains, fats and the increasingly popular soluble fibers, which contain higher digestible energy content than long stemmed forages. Also, many performance type feeds are highly fortified with amino acids, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, yeast and other nutrients that oats out of the bag will be lacking. It is also important not to “cut” oats into a commercially prepared mix as doing this unbalances the nutrient content and ratios of the feed.
Beet pulp is a soluble fiber derived from the processing of sugar beets and has become a very popular feed ingredient for horses in the past decade. Because it is a fiber, it is fermented into volatile fatty acids by microbes like hay in the hind-gut, but when digested it yields energy levels similar to that of oats.
Adding vegetable oil to the ration is a great way to increase caloric density, again without asking the horse to digest and metabolize additional starch. Oils contain over twice the calories of grains, contain no starch and are easily absorbed from the small intestine. When high fat products are fed, less feed needs to be consumed by the horse to achieve the same caloric density as a feed containing high amounts of starch. Many commercial concentrate feeds now commonly contain added oil in the amounts of 5-10%, and fats or oils can comprise as much as 20% of the total diet of the horse if necessary. Besides increasing calories in the diet, high fat diets have been shown to improve performance in high intensity, short duration activities such as racing when horses have been adapted to the fat. These individuals will utilize fat as an energy substrate preferentially over glycogen for a longer period of time during racing, allowing for a reserve of glucose when needed towards the end of the race. From a behavioral standpoint, fat or oil supplemented diets have been reputed to positively modify behavior in excitable horses.
Feed companies are incorporating these essential ingredients into their performance horse feeds to provide safe, easily digested energy dense rations for horses requiring large amounts of feed to maintain weight. When considering a concentrate mix for hard keepers, bear in mind that several ingredients blended together usually provide the most energy and the proper amounts and proportions of other necessary nutrients. A custom blend or a commercial mix is recommended over home mixes because it’s easy to unbalance the ration if too little or too much of one or several ingredients are added.
The goals for the feeding and management of nervous or more hyperactive performance horses should include the use of high quality forage, concentrates that contain high fat and soluble fiber and as equally important, the implementation of a routine program that minimizes digestive, metabolic and emotional disorders. Even when the best feeds are used, horses that are unhappy in their environment will not be able to perform to the best of their ability, as stress and discomfort will undoubtedly whittle away at even the greatest genetic potential.
Vitamins and Minerals may have calming effect
Many supplements are marketed as having a “calming” effect on high-strung horses, but the reality is nothing works better in calming nervous horses than managing diet and exercise to correctly match the individual needs of each horse in the barn. The most common supplement for nervous horses is Thiamin, a B-Vitamin. B-Vitamins are produced by the microbial populations in the hindgut, but horses in heavy training that are stressed may not produce adequate amounts to meet their requirements. Thiamin, another B-Vitamin, is known to produce problems with brain function when deficient and therefore adding some to the horse diet may decrease anxiety and excitability in nervous horses. Thiamin supplementation is safe, since it is not stored in the body and may even help to improve appetite in picky eaters, though none of these anecdotal reports have been proven in clinically controlled studies. Magnesium supplementation has also been noted to improve mental capacity in horses (1-2 ounces of magnesium oxide per day). Severe magnesium deficiency is rare in horses, but symptoms include muscle tremors, poor work capacity, insulin resistance excitability and convulsions. Generally, the common diet of the horse provides more than adequate amounts of magnesium but certain individuals may respond positively to supplementation. It is important to note that excess magnesium can interfere with calcium metabolism and absorption, and it is very important that the ratio of calcium to magnesium remains at 2.5:1. The total calcium requirement for horses is 20-40 grams per day depending on level of work being performed, and the magnesium requirement is 6.75-13.70 grams per day.