Does feed affect attitude in horses?

Nutrena Warmblood Horse Annick-7120I was recently asked by a fellow horse owner if I felt diet could play a role in the disposition of her horse.  My answer was “Yes, equine diet can have some influence on equine disposition.” But the answer is multifaceted.

Feeding Schedules

Horses by nature are grazing animals. Their stomach is small in relation to their body size, as they are flight animals. Their stomach continuously secretes acid which is buffered when they are chewing and creating saliva. A horse should consume approximately 2% of their body weight per day in forage.

Unfortunately, domestication has made horses more of a meal eater while in confinement, increasing the incidence of ulcers and other issues. Many of the farms I visit have feeding schedules which provide the bulk of a horse’s caloric intake within an 8 hour time frame, such as two feeding per day at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

I realize that feeding large barns can be labor intensive and more frequent feeding per day is not always an option. However, spacing the meals further apart and using tools, such as slow feed hay nets or hay racks, can slow the consumption rate to replicate grazing. For owners that board their horses, I often suggest providing treats of chopped forage or hay extenders to provide additional chew time and alleviate boredom.

Feeding Program

The dietary balance may also play a role in horse’s disposition. Many horse owners still believe that too much protein in the horse’s diet will cause behavioral problems.  The reality is that concentrates high in NSC (Non-structural carbohydrates, or starch and sugar) may cause behavior challenges in some horses. Many feed companies now list the NSC on their feed tags, but keep in mind you must add both the starch and sugar percentages together to get the total picture.

The dietary needs of a horse depend greatly on his daily workload.

  • A race horse or high-performance eventer will have both higher total caloric demands, and higher NSC demands, to support glycogen repletion. I often tell my students you would not condition and plan to run the Boston Marathon on a low non-structural carbohydrate diet.  We also know that added fat (oil) in an equine diet may have glycogen sparing effects, and may have a calming effect on some horses.
  • On the other hand, a maintenance or pleasure horse will have lower total caloric demands and lower NSC demands and may require a different balance of energy sources.

Bottom Line: High energy intake, particularly from non-structural carbohydrates, coupled with limited work and limited turn out is rarely a good combination!

Body Condition

Body condition and weight management can also influence a horse’s disposition. A horse with leg or joint issues carrying too much weight may be less than accommodating when asked to work. Keeping the horse at a moderate body condition is a key concern.

The reverse can also hold true, keeping a horse at a low body condition score so that the rider can easily handle the animal is not good management or training. Vitamin and mineral supplements are not a replacement for caloric requirements and a balanced diet.

The Bottom Line

Often times, we really need to examine if the owner has the right horse for the job at hand, and is the behavior of the horse a matter of diet, training, or physical ability?

  • Examine your horse’s diet to see that you are providing adequate forage intake and chew time.
  • Review the overall composition of your horse’s diet and balance the dietary needs with fiber (structural carbohydrates), fats, non-structural carbohydrates and protein.
  • Is your horse at an ideal body condition score?

In summary, diet can be an influencer in equine disposition, but it is not an alternative for the wrong career choice for your equine partner.