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Feeding for a Balanced Temperment

Feeding for a balanced temperament brought to you by Nicole Groyer, Nutritionist at Connolly’s Red Mills

Although diet alone cannot change your horse’s actual temperament, it can have a significant effect on their behaviour. This article will focus on how we can optimise the diet of excitable, anxious or ‘stressy’ horses.

Photo by Edward Whitaker

Protein – Friend or foe?

Protein is an important nutrient for all horses and supplies the building blocks for growth, cell repair and muscle development. Contrary to popular belief, it is not responsible for excitability or nervousness in the horse. Although protein can be utilised as a form of energy for the horse, it is only used as a very last resort source (e.g. a starving horse will begin to break down their body’s own protein reserves [i.e. muscle] to use as energy in order to survive).

The misconception that protein causes excitability stems from the fact that traditionally high protein feeds are often also high in starch. However, we now know that it is the starch, rather than the protein, that can exacerbate excitability. Limiting protein intake will not reduce excitability and may in fact result in issues such as lack of muscle development, a weakened immune system and poor hoof and hair quality.

Energy

Primary energy sources for the horse come from starch and sugar, fibre and oil. Starch and sugars are rapidly broken down by the horse into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream via the small intestine. They provide the horse with a rush of fuel known as ‘fast-release’ energy. This type of energy can be very useful for certain horse types such as those that tend to be very laid-back. However, for a ‘fizzy’ horse, high intakes of ‘fast-release’ energy may result in them becoming difficult to handle or ride.

‘Fizzy’ individuals will benefit from a diet that is lower in starch and sugar and instead uses digestible fibres and oil as alternative energy sources. Fibre is a source of ‘slow-release’ energy, fermented gradually in the horse’s hindgut and so the energy is released over a long period of time. Likewise, oil is an excellent source of ‘non-heating’ energy and is a particularly useful source of calories when feeding a high-spirited horse.

Micronutrients

Several micronutrients are important for the correct functioning of the horse’s nervous system and low levels of certain vitamins and minerals may be linked to anxiety, including:

Magnesium: This is an essential mineral required for muscle relaxation, regulation of cardiac rhythm and nerve signalling. Low magnesium intakes can be associated with increased stress and nervousness.

B-Vitamins: Vitamins B1 ‘Thiamine’, B6 ‘Pyridoxine’ and B12 ‘Cyanocobalamin’ play important roles in energy regulation, the transmission of nervous impulses and the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Therefore, deficiencies in B-vitamins may contribute to excitability in some horses.

L-Tryptophan: This is an essential amino acid and is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, also known as “the happy hormone”. Serotonin is required on a daily basis by the brain for normal function and is particularly associated with the inhibition of aggression, fear or stress.

Forage

The most important part of your horses’ diet is forage (i.e. grass, hay or haylage). Ideally, forage should be fed on a free choice basis allowing your horse access to roughage as needed. However, if restricted, the total forage intake should be no less than 1½ % of bodyweight per day on a dry matter basis (e.g. 7½ kg of forage ‘dry weight’ per day for a 500 kg horses). Feeding less than this amount will compromise your horse’s health; increasing the risk of gastric ulcers, stereotypic behaviours, and hindgut disturbances – all of which have the potential to exacerbate unwanted behaviours.

 

1. GRASS

Grass is an important forage source for many horses. However, it is important to remember that grass can be high in sugar, particularly at certain times of year (e.g. spring and autumn). During the daytime grass produces sugar using a process called photosynthesis, the plant then uses this sugar to fuel growth and seed production. During the night, when there is no light available, sugar levels tend to decrease and are usually at their lowest the following morning.

However, this can vary day-to-day depending on environmental conditions. For example, the sugar content of grass will be high on frosty, sunny mornings as the grass will been unable to use it during the night due to low overnight temperatures. Therefore, it is difficult to give concrete guidelines on when is the best time to turn out.

Whilst sugar levels in pasture must be considered, the opportunity to spend some time in the paddock relaxing or letting off steam are of equal importance for horses prone to anxious, stress or excitable behaviour.

 

 

2. Hay & Haylage

The nutritional value of hay will largely depend on when it was cut. Late-cut hay tends to have lower digestible energy, starch and sugar levels than that of early-cut hay. This makes it a popular choice for many horses prone to ‘hotting up’. The hay can also be soaked, if necessary, to further reduce its sugar content.

Haylage that has undergone extensive fermentation will also be low in sugar, as the sugar is used up during this process. However, most haylage nowadays tends to be relatively dry which limits fermentation, meaning that more sugar remains. In general, a high fibre haylage will be more suitable for anxious, sharp individuals than an early-cut ryegrass haylage.

Choosing a feed

When choosing a suitable hard feed for a horse prone to being overly excitable or anxious, look for a feed that contains controlled levels of starch and sugar. In these situations, a low starch concentrate feed from the Connolly’s RED MILLS Horse Care range, which provide controlled energy release from a unique blend of super fibres and cereals, is recommended.

The Connolly’s RED MILLS Care Range contains the benefits of our unique Care Package, which includes pure protected yeast and two prebiotics (MOS and FOS) to aid hindgut health and help maximise forage digestibility. In addition, a natural long-lasting gastric acid buffer is also added to help support a healthy stomach.

For horses at rest or in very light work that need a calorie-controlled diet Connolly’s RED MILLS PerformaCare Balancer is ideal. This nutrient-dense balancer contains optimal levels of micronutrients in a low intake feed.

 

 

 

For horses in light to moderate work, we recommend our Horse Care Ultra. The ingredients in Horse Care Ultra Cubes have been carefully selected to provide ‘non-heating’, slow release energy in a low starch.

For horses in moderate to hard levels of work who may be jumping, evening, polo or hunting and do require some grain in the diet, we recommend Horse Care 10 or Horse Care 14 Cubes or Mix. Both these feeds are low in starch and high in fibre but contain a grain inclusion to help fuel exercise.

If you have already made changes to your horse’s diet and are managing their exercise levels and environment to help minimize stress, anxiety or excitability then it may be worth considering a specific calming supplement. There are a high number of calmers on the market and it is important to note when making your choice that some calmers are based on one single ingredient (e.g. magnesium).

Unless your horse actually has low magnesium levels these products may be of limited benefit. Therefore, we recommend using a supplement which contains a combination of magnesium, B-vitamins and L Tryptophan, such as Foran Equine Nutri-Calm Syrup or Gel.

 

Providing an excitable or anxious horse with the energy or calories they need, without exacerbating an already overly exuberant attitude, can be challenging. However, it is possible to promote a more even temperament by keeping the starch and sugar levels low and instead providing energy (calories) from ‘slow-release’ energy sources including digestible super fibres (e.g. beet pulp and alfalfa meal) and oil (e.g. soya oil). Including a calming supplement such as Foran Equine Nutri-Calm Syrup or Gel can also be enormously beneficial for many individuals.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Feeding practices when feeding the Ex Racehorse

1. Feed each horse as an individual. Consider height, weight, life stage, metabolism, temperament and workload

2. Make all changes to the diet gradually over 7-10 days to minimise the risk of digestive disturbances

3. Forage is the most important part of your horses diet! Provide forage ad-lib where possible

4. Feed little and often, split your hard feed into 2 or 3 meals daily

5. Weigh your feed scoop! Feed by weight not volume

6. Assess body condition regularly, use a Body Condition Score (BCS) system

7. Have your vet or dentist check your horse’s teeth and make sure you worm appropriately

8. Watch for signs of ulcers and, if found, take measures treat as recommended by your vet

9. Provide fresh clean water at all times

10. Keep to a routine to help your horse adjust to its new career

 

Nicole Groyer

Nicole is an Animal Science Equine graduate from University College Dublin. She joined Connolly’s RED MILLS Nutrition team in 2018 and has been a key member providing technical support across Ireland, Europe, and the Middle East.

Having worked in all areas of the equine industry, Nicole has an extensive understanding of performance horse nutrition, as well as the challenges owners, breeders, and trainers, may face. She has worked closely with sport horse stables, stud farms, and trainers supporting customers with nutrition advice, forage analysis, and diet planning.

Nicole has her own ex racehorse, Vartano, who she retrained, so combines her technical knowledge with a passion for retraining racehorses to help support horses and riders in their retraining journey.

 

Photo by Laurence Dunne jumpinaction.net

 

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