Horse Feed and Horse Behaviour

At Australian Natural Health and Healing, we believe in natural feeding. This means that if possible, provide your horse with feed as natural as they can be, that is less processed and as close as possible to what a horse would eat naturally.

Of course grass is the most natural feed available. However, our lands are not as prosperous as they used to be and the variety of grass on a small acreage property would be limited. The soil is also likely to be poor in nutrients, meaning that the grass will not be very nutritious, hence the need to provide extra feed.

The closest feed to grass is hay and chaff. It is important to provide plenty of those. There are different types of hay like lucerne, barley, grassy etc.

The important thing here is that you must provide a balanced diet between roughage (hay, chaff, pasture, bran) and concentrate (grains, meals, fats etc). Although chaff is chopped hay, hay as such is a primary ingredient of the diet because it provides longer stems which help in the horse’s digestion. When horses do not have access to valuable pasture, or are fed grains, they should be provided with hay or chaff with a minimum of 1% of their body weight to enable efficient digestion (Dr John Kohnke).

Feed should be weighted and not measured in volume because it is the only way you will be able to calculate your horse’s intake. If you are using a 2 litre ice-cream container to measure your feed, take 1 measure of each feed, weigh it and record it. On average, a 2 litre container will be about 300g of lucerne chaff, 250g of white chaff etc.

Feed must be free of mould and “unwanted visitors” alive or dead! So it is important to store your feed correctly to avoid any spoilage and contamination. Mould and horses do not agree!!

Whatever ration you establish, you must monitor its effects on your horse and adjust accordingly. For example, if your horse seems to actively seek food after he has been fed, this means he is still hungry and you might need to increase the quantity. If, on the other hand, he has leftovers, then you will need to reduce the quantity. It takes around 3 weeks to see the effect of a particular feed, so if your horse is losing weight without any apparent reason (you know he is not sick or worm infested), then you will need to re-assess his ration. The same applies if your horse starts behaving strangely.

So lets see how food can affect a horse’s behaviour.

A natural diet for a wild horse contains large amount of cellulose fibre from plants that are digested in the large intestine. This natural diet contains very little amount of starch and sugars found in grains and protein in legume plants like lucerne. Starch, sugars and protein overload in the small intestine are a cause of digestive upsets and will “heat up” a horse or cause colics as the feed ferments in this region.

Some horses are so intolerant to starch they cannot eat oaten chaff (yes, there is a little bit of oats in quality oaten chaff). A common feed stuff that is very high in starch is wheat bran with between 30 to 50% starch. If you must feed grains, it is important that you provide plenty of roughage to help with digestion and the amount of grains be minimal.

Synthetic or poor quality vitamins and minerals may also create some unusual reactions, depending how sensitive your horse is. Horses are like people, some react to red cordial, others to lactose, some to red meat etc. Unfortunately there is no black and white answer. It is a matter of trialling something and observe how your pony reacts.

The good news is that once the culprit ingredient is identified and removed from the diet, your horse should return to its normal-self within days.

A good idea is to introduce new feed one by one (if possible) and see how it goes after few days.

Of course there are other factors that might affect your horse’s behaviour and they should be eliminated from the equation before blaming its feed. Horses by nature are not mean animals. They do have a hierarchy in their herd and there is always few fights among them. The alpha horse will ensure to maintain its status and will “boss” other around if needs be. This is normal. There are few books written on the subject that might help understand their behaviour within a herd.

An aggressive horse, on the other hand, is not normal. We should ask ourselves questions such as:

  • When does this behaviour happen? (feed time? During riding? Etc)
  • Has he always been aggressive?
  • If he became aggressive suddenly, what happened? We might need to investigate a little
  • Was he abused, starved or neglected in the past? Horses have a phenomenal memory and it might take a lot of re-education to change behaviour caused by bad memories!
  • Is he in any sort of pain? Like us, some horses are more sensitive to pain than others so a little thing might seem the end of the world for the sensitive ones! This is where we (or a vet) need to check his feet, back, neck, muscular tightness etc. If a horse is unbalanced, even slightly, it may cause some pain in his body and could be the cause for misbehaving. it is true that some horses will endure horrible pain without blinking an eye until they simply fall apart (or down)! This is then a shock to the owner who did not know their horse was hurting. One should take the time to really know their horse and be attuned to them to depict any abnormality. It takes time and patience.
  • Does his tack fit properly? Wrong saddles can cause some musculoskeletal issues and make our pony very unhappy!
  • If it’s a mare, is she in season? Some mares can get extreme during these times!
  • Is he badly educated? Have we got a spoiled brat?
  • Does he have an ulcer? This is difficult to determine and you will need your vet to run some check-ups. According to scientists, it is very common in horses, especially those who raced or competed as they get highly stressed and their diets might not be the best in terms of digestion. Some symptoms might be sensitivity to some feed stuff, especially starch and proteins, behavioural issues and weight loss. These symptoms alone are not sufficient to provide an accurate diagnostic, so if you suspect your horse has an ulcer, contact your veterinarian who will be able to confirm it and prescribe medication.
  • Now, a very simple question which gets overlooked quite often: does he get too much food for his activity level? Food is energy, so if our horse does not use his energy in his activity, he will have some left to spare!!
  • Does the horse buck when ridden (regularly)? Bucking takes a lot of effort for horses so there has to be a good reason. Assuming that it is not a horse in breaking, causes for bucking may be a painful saddle, sore back/body/feet, bad memories as explained above, too playful (too much food)?

I guess the first thing to eliminate is any physical health issues whether they are illnesses or injuries. Your veterinarian is the person to contact first and they will be able to refer you to other professionals if needs be, like farriers, chiropractors etc.

Elimination of any ill-fitted tack is the second one. If there is an issue with the saddle then you might need to get a saddle fitter in. It is not expensive and is worth the spending. Better have a good saddle than having a horse that bucks, is sore, unhappy and dangerous.

Any mental issues due to the horse’s past are better dealt with the help of professional trainers. Same applies to a badly educated horse. These professionals can help us in re-educating our horse and teach us what to do or not do.

If your horse gets supplements like minerals and vitamins, do a bit of research to see how other horses react to what you are giving yours. It is not uncommon to see a change in behaviour according to supplements given to a horse. Sometimes, it is wise to stop all supplements to see if the horse goes back to a gentler state. It is possible that these supplements might be too concentrate, or of an average quality, or that the horse has some allergic reaction to them, especially if they are synthetic. And sometimes, it might be necessary to only give natural supplements like herbs, dolomite etc.

Minerals and vitamins (supplements) should be given based on what the horse’s nutrients requirements. A good start if to check the NRC web site and John Kohnke’s book “Feeding Horses in Australia” to understand nutrients and calculate what your horse needs.