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Using Diet to Get a Mellower Horse

The reason why a horse that is fed forage is often more calmer than other horses is because the natural environment of a horse is on pasture. However, many horse owners think that horses simply munch on pasture grass to pass the time, although a horse is more even tempered if you can feed them on more forage requirements than grain.

However, the forage source needs to have a high level of energy or calories if the horse is going to be working at moderate to intense activity levels. You horse will not have enough calories to maintain their good body condition if you only feed them hay that has six percent protein and thirty-nine percent ADF or Acid Detergent Fiber. ADF is basically a rough estimate of non-digestible fiber. The quality of forage can be determined by the ADF value since the higher the ADF the poorer quality of the forage.

Owners often increase the amount of grain in the horse’s diet to make up the difference which can lead to horse becoming more excitable. However, if you make sure your hay has up to twelve percent protein content and a low ADF for better fiber value then you will be giving your horse more calories per round and won’t have to give them as much grain which allows you to avoid a hyper horse.

You can also help provide your horse with energy through forage sources and shredded beet pulp products. There is actually more energy per pound in beet pulp then there is in alfalfa hay which can help maintain the weight of some of the hardest keepers without having to give your horse large amounts of grain.

For horses alfalfa is excellent forage but it’s obviously not perfect. Due to the high amount of protein in alfalfa the amount you feed a horse may need to be controlled. Up to twenty-eight percent of protein can be found in alfalfa. Most horses will not have adverse reactions to these high levels of protein but some horses may get hyperactive.

Hyperactive behavior can sometimes come from excessive protein intakes which cause an increase in blood nitrogen levels, at least in theory. This can then alter certain metabolic hormones and in particular the thyroid hormones. However, in actual practice hay protein usually has to be fed in upward of more than 150 percent of the horse’s requirement in order to have an effect on attitude unlike starch or grain sources.

Many owners blame their horse’s excitability on grain, especially the sweet feed and its molasses. However, this is an incorrect assumption. The problem can be caused by the amount of sweet feed given to the horse and not the sweet feed itself. Elevated blood glucose levels results from feeding excessive pounds of grain to a horse.

Another false accusation is that corn makes horses hyperactive. The energy and density difference between corn and other grains such as oats and barley are misunderstood by people. Only about thirty percent more calories per pound is found in corn compared to oats and it weight seventy-five percent more per bushel. In practical terms this means that you would actually feed your horse more than twice as many calories if you fed one gallon of corn in place of one gallon of oats. While this can make a horse hyperactive it is not really the corn that is the culprit.

What makes a horse hyperactive is the fact that the owner doubles the horse’s energy intake. You likely won’t see any difference in behavior if you replace one gallon of oats with a half gallon of corn since the energy intake is the same. When formulated correctly and in a balanced ration corn can be a wonderful ingredient. Even though corn is high in fat is will not alter behavior by itself as long as it is fed properly in a quality mixed feed.

The Connection Between Supplements and Behavior

A variety of supplements may affect a horse’s behavior even though some horses are just more active than others. For this purpose alone some horses are sold. There are over-the-counter calming nutritional agents such as thiamin and magnesium which affect the central nervous system.

Green grass, green hay and yeast all contain thiamin. Thiamin also plays an important role in carbohydrate metabolism and in nerve transmission. It is a common element used to calm horses that are excitable.

Studies show that diminished spontaneous activity in a horse can be achieved through a fat-containing diet and lecithin. In human medicine high-fat diets are now being used to modify certain hyperactive syndromes.

Good nutrition, growth and health rely on amino acids. In both horse and human nutrition tryptophan has been used to provide a claming effect. However, tryptophan will only have a claming effect in humans or horses if it is fed in increased levels and the person or horse has the inability to produce enough tryptophan and its metabolites on their own due to a deficiency in the enzyme system with is predominantly determined by genetics.

Magnesium must be kept in balance with calcium, copper and manganese for the body to function correctly and it is vital to help with bone development. Animals can become depressed and unresponsive to stimuli when they are fed very high levels of calcium.

Herbal therapy for horses has very little research. A “natural” ingredient isn’t always good for your horse. Compounds such as alkaloids, volatile oils and vitamins can be found in herbs which depress the central nervous system and can result in a claming effect. Catnip, chamomile, passion flower, hops and ginseng are all herbal agents that have been known to have a sedating effect on the nervous system. Feed and tack shops sell several of these herbs over the counter.

Read the next horse nutrition article on Foal Nutrition: Headstart Program.
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