Incorrect feeding, as well as other factors and health problems, can contribute to your horse’s stressy behaviour. With scientific evidence confirming that certain types of feed affect horses’ behaviour, you are right to look at using ‘Non-Heating’ products.
One of the major nutritional causes of stressy behaviour is feeding a diet high in Non- Structural Carbohydrate (NSC). Cereals and cereal-containing compounds that are high in starch have been found to lead to excess reactive behaviour. Large feeds of cereal-based products can lead to an overflow of undigested starch from the foregut into the hindgut. This can upset the microbial balance which increases the acidity of the hindgut, which may lead to ‘fizzy’ behaviour and an exaggerated response to stressful events.
High NSC diets can also predispose horses to gastric ulceration. Stressy behaviour can act as a trigger factor for ulcers but may also occur as a consequence of gastric discomfort.
There are many products marketed as ‘Cool’ or ‘Non-Heating.’ To establish which would be best for your horse, it is helpful to look at the level of sugar and starch (NSC), as well as the ingredients included.
Mixes, by their very nature, tend to contain cereals such as oats, barley, wheat or maize. They are often heavily molassed and contain up to 25% starch. Although this may be ‘cool’ when compared to other products in a range, lower starch levels would be preferable for a horse that is stressy.
Low levels of starch are usually better achieved by using cubed or pelleted products; those with starch levels near to or below 10% are ideal. Care should be taken as certain ‘Cool’ or ‘Non-Heating’ cubes can contain cereal-grains. These are easily identified by looking at the list of ingredients on the label.
The closer you can get to feeding in the way your horse has evolved to eat, the more relaxed he will be. Therefore appropriate forage should be offered ad-lib, with small volumes of hard feed which are low in sugar and starch.
Plenty of turnout is helpful, although intake of high sugar grass (e.g. during spring and autumn) may need to be restricted. Late-cut meadow hay is ideal. Avoiding ryegrass and early-cuts usually means you will have a lower sugar product. If your horse is a good-doer then this type of hay can be soaked for 3 to 12 hours in ample, cool, fresh water to lower its calorie content.
Basing the hard feed on an appropriate cereal-grain-free top specification feed balancer e.g. TopSpec Comprehensive Feed Balancer, is usually a very successful approach. This will allow your horse to gain maximum benefit from his forage meaning that hard feeds can be kept small. Pre- and probiotics, included in certain top specification feed balancers and multi-supplements, not only support fibre digestion but may also, through their effect on the microbial balance in the hindgut, help to relax certain horses.
If additional calories are needed, highly digestible fibre products, and/or oil, instead of cereals will keep sugar and starch levels down. Top specification, low sugar and starch conditioning cubes are ideal e.g. TopSpec CoolCondition cubes. Certain cubes e.g. TopSpec UlsaKind cubes, also include beneficial ingredients such as β-glucans, pectin and long acting buffers, which provide additional support for the stomach.
If all of these changes help but do not help enough, the addition of a calmer e.g. TopSpec Calmer may also be useful.
As well as dietary management, it is important to consider other factors contributing to your horse’s behaviour. These include confinement, lack of social interaction, changes in routine, travel, competition, and health problems such as dental issues, musculoskeletal conditions and gastric ulcers. It may be advisable to ask your vet to carry out a thorough examination, especially if the behaviour is out of character for your horse.