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It’s a question that comes up time and again –How do I safely put weight onto my horse without making it fizzy? Thankfully there are ways to minimize the risk of a change in feed, affecting your horse’s behaviour. As a starting point it's important to stress that every horse is an individual and a feed that one horse accepts without issue may trigger a behavioural change in another. Having said that, there are certain ingredients that are more likely to provoke a ‘feisty’ response from your horse. Avoiding these and identifying alternatives may provide you with the best opportunity to add the desired condition whilst steering clear of unwanted behaviour.
Whilst the mere mention of the word ‘energy’ can strike fear into the hearts of many nervous horse owners, the reality is that without energy a horse cannot function, move, breathe or survive at all. In simple terms, if a horse utilizes more energy than it takes in through feed or pasture then it will lose condition. If it consumes more energy than it uses, then it will gain weight. It is therefore necessary for us to either provide more energy to a horse that requires condition or reduce its output. The actual source of energy is the key to how behaviour will be affected.
This leads us to the primary sources of energy that we can feed a horse.
Whether it is pasture, hay, chaff, or a superfibre such as beet pulp or lupin hulls, fibre remains the most essential source of energy in the diet. The ‘heating’ potential of fibre can vary wildly as anyone with a spring flush of clover will attest to. Cereal hays such as Oaten and Wheaten as well as cool season grass hays such as rye/clover can be extremely high in sugar and provoke an excited response. Lucerne is generally lower in sugar yet excellent for conditioning, however some horses may also react negatively to this higher protein option. Generally the safest sources of fibre from a behavioural point of view (that also provide excellent conditioning) are soluble fibres such as unmolassed beet, as well as products based on lupin hulls. In addition it is recommended that ‘fizzy’ horses be provided with a base hay that is lower in sugar such as Rhodes Grass, Teff or indeed Barley straw.
Starch is a non structural carbohydrate and is primarily sourced from cereal grains such as oats, corn, barley and wheat. Once consumed, the longer chain glucose molecules are transformed into available sugars and as such are the energy source of choice for high performance horses (including horses that race, event, jump or are involved in any high level equestrian pursuits). Starch provides rapid energy. For horses prone to ‘fizzy’ behaviour it is likely to make matters worse and so is generally not the energy source of choice for sensitive horses. In particular, oats and corn are more likely to be problematic from a behavioural point of view, however there may be instances where a highly digested form of barley (eg MICRBARLEY®) may provide the conditioning benefits of carbohydrates without excessive fizz.
Again this will be very much an individual response but particularly in the case of thoroughbreds the application of some micronized barley is worth a try.
Protein is essential for life itself. More specifically the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein are essential in the repair and redefining of muscle and topline. It follows that any desire to add healthy condition must include protein. Aside from pasture and legume hays such as lucerne, protein is also readily provided through ingredients such as soyabean meal, lupins, tick beans and sunflower seeds. All of these sources are high in protein and relatively low in starch, which means they generally provide a lower ‘fizz’ type of energy. However, whilst protein is an important element in topline conditioning it should not be wholly relied upon as a singular energy source as it is both expensive and can provoke ‘deamination’ which sees excessive amino acids transformed into ammonia. Such a scenario can be of concern to a stabled horse in particular.
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With knowledge of potential energy sources we can look at practical ways to formulate a diet that adds condition with minimal ‘fizz’. As with any diet we always start with fibre, be it pasture, hay or chaff. The more a horse can rely on fibre the better, and so a combination of a low sugar pasture along with approximately 1.5 to 2% of the horse’s bodyweight in a low sugar hay is an ideal base. We should then endeavour to maximise feed efficiency by providing at least 2 feeds per day consisting again of an efficient low sugar fibre source such as MICRBEET®, FIBRESSENTIAL® or FIBER PROTECT® and then a balanced blend of fat, protein and ‘cooler’ carbohydrates. An appropriate premixed feed with full micro nutrient profile will also avoid the need to add more supplements on top. The following is a very basic example of a commonly recommended ‘low heating’ diet for a 450kg horse requiring condition without the fizz. There are a plethora of other options but this one is probably the simplest starting point for a horse of this size.
4 Biscuits of a lower sugar hay per day (eg Teff, Rhodes or specific low sugar grass blend). May also include some lucerne if the horse does not react negatively to it.
Whilst energy dense feed is an obvious trigger for behavioural change, it’s important to consider other factors and the overall “big picture.”
Check if your horse’s paddock has had a seasonal change to its pasture. Flushes of sugar-rich green grass in Spring and Autumn are notorious for bringing on hyperactivity and “naughtiness.” Grass can hold a surprising amount of sugar and is often overlooked as a suspect when it comes to identifying behaviour causes.
Pasture can also be mycotoxin affected, meaning your horse is ingesting microscopic toxic fungi. Such toxins can have an effect on behaviour (amongst other systemic issues.) A broad-spectrum toxin binder such as Safeguard EQ® may be beneficial in resolving this problem. Think about the effect of any recent changes to herd dynamics. Does your horse have a new friend that he may be focusing on instead of his work? Perhaps the removal of a friend has placed your horse under a period of stress. Both situations tend to resolve given time and/or training. Consider your horse’s living conditions. If your horse is stabled, then its excitable behaviour could be the result of inactivity. Give your horse more to occupy its mind and body with increased access to exercise. Even fairly short periods of turnout or in-hand walking for 30 minutes can make a difference to the horse’s physiological and psychological wellbeing.
A diet deficient in Magnesium or B Vitamin (Thiamine) can make a horse nervous, anxious or spooky. Whilst it's uncommon for a diet to be lacking in Magnesium or Thiamine, it’s not a difficult fix and is achieved through feed or supplement.
Take a closer look at the type of negative behaviour your horse is exhibiting and rule out other causes such as pain. It’s important to remember that a horse has limited ways in which to communicate, so jogging, spooking, bucking and rearing may be an indicator of pain instead of simply excess energy.
Let’s not forget that horses are individuals. If you are basing a new horse’s diet on one that worked for another horse, then you could be setting yourself up for a real eye-opener. What one horse tolerates (e.g. grain) can be completely the wrong fit for another horse. Horses vary in their ability to digest starch and therefore have different blood sugar reactions from one individual to the next. If you have reduced your horse’s workload but not adjusted its feed, then it may have an excess of energy. Excess energy can be expressed under saddle, on the ground, or in the paddock. On the other side of this equation are horses that lack condition and have an undersupply of energy. Their deficiency leaves them lethargic, which may be mistaken for a quiet disposition. When such horses have their diets balanced then it stands to reason that more energy will make them feel more “energetic.” In such cases it’s important to re-evaluate the horse’s baseline for normal behaviour and apply training and/or further exercise as appropriate.
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