There are some truths, but numerous misconceptions regarding nutrition and your horse’s attitude. The confusion comes from the challenge of measuring what “attitude” really means. There is limited proper scientific research regarding the link between nutrition and attitude. Furthermore, many practices used in the industry to change a horse’s attitude often cause secondary side effects that can be detrimental to your horse’s welfare, one of the worst is to withhold water.
Other non-nutritional factors that can affect behaviour are: drugs; herbs, genetics, exercise, environment, stress, temperature, past experience, stimulus and desensitization. Finally, horses have survived in the wild for years relying on their survival instincts; consequently, horses have an unbelievable capacity to perceive fear or tension. Even the slightest of human apprehension can affect a horse’s disposition.
Some apparent nutritional factors that may influence attitude are:
• The amount of calories consumed per day. This element is most likely the least concerning of all
the nutritional factors.
• Dehydration: A dehydrated horse will be either lazy or crazy.
• Vitamin and mineral status: Contrary to popular belief, vitamins and minerals do not make
horses “high”. In fact, the first symptom of vitamin deficiency is nervousness of which thiamine
(B1) deficiency is a key example. Vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in the overall health
and well being of the horse and their significance on attitude correlates to the statement - “a
healthy body is a healthy mind.” Keep in mind that a well-fed horse, especially when previously
fed a nutrient deficient diet, can seem to be excited or “hot” at first, when in fact it is simply
feeling good and healthy and is trying to express that to you.
Importantly, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, the principle objective is to provide a
balanced ration. More is not always better since vitamin A, D, perhaps K, and most micro-
minerals need to be fed at specific levels to prevent adverse interactions or toxicity.
The current trend in equine nutrition is sugar/starch or glycemic response (GR). However, this belief has been around for years as demonstrated by the old saying “he is feeling his oats”. An increase in blood sugar (glucose) through glucose uptake and starch digestion in the small intestine will cause insulin to be released. Accordingly, feed products that are fat and fibre based will provide calories without a GR, while products high in sugar and starch will induce a higher GR and may excite some horses.
Regrettably, managing (GR) is more complicated than just controlling the sugar/starch or Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) level in the diet. NSC is currently the term used for sugar/starch content. The NSC level in your horse’s diet is a primary factor influencing GR; however, other nutritional factors will influence GR, such as:
• The amount of NSC per feeding not just the % in the feed.
• The source of the starch. Is it from oats, barley, corn and etc? Each starch source is digested
differently and consequently altering the GR.
• The processing of the starch source. Is it whole, cracked, pelleted, steam flaked or extruded?
These procedures will affect the level of starch digestibility in the small intestine.
• Time of grain feeding in conjunction with hay consumption.
• The % of fat in the diet. Studies have shown that fat will reduce GR.
Finally, anything that irritates your horse’s digestive system can also irritate their attitude. Colic, ulcers and an imbalanced hindgut can all affect your horse’s behaviour. Starch and fibre need to be precisely balanced in your horse’s ration for optimum gut health. Quality fibre is definitely not a high-octane fuel for performance but it is required for optimum health.