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Finding a Diet for the Active Horse

Protein in the diet has long been associated with horses that have high-strung behavior. However, rather than looking at the usual suspect it may be a good idea to look more closely at your horses carbohydrate intake.

Because of the nutritional needs of performance horses many owners feed them alfalfa hay and high-protein feeds and as a result many thing hyperactive horses are the result of high-protein diets. However, there has been no evidence that behavioral changes in horses is the result of higher protein levels and there is no physiological basis that can lead one to believe that protein is responsible. The energy content of a horse feed is not affected by the protein content.

The soluble carbohydrate content of ingredients in feedstuffs are typically sugars and starches. The amount of soluble carbohydrates in feedstuffs can be very different. An example is that alfalfa hay has a soluble carbohydrate content that is twice the amount of timothy hay. The amount of soluble carbohydrate content may be nearly double the amount found in alfalfa hay with some textured feeds. The digestive enzymes in the small intestine take the sugars and starches in a horseís diet and convert them into glucose before they are absorbed into the blood.

When horses are fed diets that have a high soluble carbohydrate content their blood glucose levels are higher and the more food you give them the higher these levels are going to get. The increasing blood glucose causes insulin to be released as a response. Insulin is a hormone that allows the body cells to absorb the glucose this means that the more glucose secreted then the more insulin that is released by the body in response.

There has been no study yet to prove that horses that are sensitive to high soluble carbohydrate diets are more likely to have hyperactive behavior. However, studies involving humans and rats have shown evidence that suggests manic behavior may result from higher circulating levels of glucose and insulin.

Feeding less grain and more hay is one way that you can lower the glucose and insulin peaks in an affected horse and therefore possibly decrease any hyperactive behavior. Feeding a larger proportion of hay in a horseís diet will lower the dietary levels of sugars and starches since hay is lower in soluble carbohydrates. A horse that weights 1,100 pounds and has light work can have their daily digestible energy needs met with eleven pounds of hay and eight pounds of textured or pellet feed per day or by giving sixteen pounds of hay and just five pounds of feed.

Another thing that can help is to feed your horse grain more frequently. The recommendation for grain concentrate is typically no more than a half-percent of body weight per individual feeding. This means that for a 1,100 pound horse they would be fed no more than 5.5 pounds at one time. You should divide your daily feedings into three equal feedings instead of two if you are feeding your horse over eleven pounds of grain each day.

It is a good idea to use alfalfa based feed or beet pulp. These types of feeds have lower soluble carbohydrate content than a grain-based, low-fiber feed. It is also helpful to feed fat-added feeds since they have a higher energy density as a result of more calories per pound than feeds that donít have added fat. These high-fat feeds also have lower amounts of soluble carbohydrates and leave more room for hay since less grain is required. A lower concentrate feeding rate is a good feeding program since is means less soluble carbohydrate content for your horse.

Less grain and more hay is also allowed with fat supplements which have a more concentrated source of calories. As greater performance demands cause a great need for energy then this is important. Consider just how you would have to meet the digestible energy needs of a 1,100 pound horse with a moderate work schedule. Fourteen pounds of hay and nine pounds of supplements would be needed for meet digestible energy needs or you could feed sixteen pounds of hay and one pound of rice bran and six and a half pounds of supplements.

After feeding it may be a good idea to delay riding for about four hours. After about four hours the peak blood glucose and insulin level will have returned to normal ranges. From a management aspect this may be a bit difficult especially if you have a horse that is particularly difficult, but you may want to try it. The only thing you risk loosing by doing this is your temper and contact with the saddle.

Read the next horse nutrition article on Mood Swings & Behavior Influenced by Diet.
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