How Horse Feeds Affect Emotional Health

Can feed ingredients make your horse more hot, hyper, or excitable? Can some ingredients actually change your horse’s emotions?

Most horse owners have experienced the “elevated emotional state” that certain feeds can have on horses. We say the feed makes the horse hot, or hyper, or excitable, but can feed ingredients really change the attitude of a horse?

The answer is yes; feedstuffs can alter the way a horse acts.

“Emotional” Horse Feed Ingredients

Horse feed ingredients can give horses needed energy. If that energy isn’t used in a positive pursuit, such as exercise, that energy can be expressed in other ways, such as running and bucking. Feedstuffs also can cause horses to react negatively by causing excitability, which can also result in running, bucking, spooking, or other unwanted behaviors.

Researchers are still working on the “why” behind some feed ingredients affecting horses this way. Ultimately, it generally has to do with the sugar and starch in the horse’s diet.

Think about giving a 3-year-old child too much candy. Sometimes, they just run around and act silly. Other times, they act out and really become obnoxious and get in trouble.

It’s the same with horses. A high-energy diet for a Thoroughbred racehorse might be a good thing because of the intense level of work they are in. The same diet for a trail horse could result in disaster.

On the contrary, there is no such thing as a “no-sugar” or “no-starch” horse diet. All of the feed ingredients from forages to grains to supplements have sugar or starch. And you can’t feed a horse just fat (although added fat can certainly help in some diets).

Horses with intense energy demands need very digestible, quick energy feedstuffs to do their jobs. But, most of us don’t ride horses that work really hard. Then, the excess energy shows itself in less-desirable behaviors.

Hey Sugar, Sugar!

You don’t have to look far to find sugar in every horse’s diet. Forage is the main source of sugar in most horses’ daily feed intake. Usually, the sugar in forage isn’t something we worry about unless we are feeding a metabolic horse.

However, there are many feed ingredients that are high in sugar and starch. One that often gets a lot of attention is molasses. One thing to note is there is a difference in the “conditioner molasses” used to hold feed pellets together and the shiny molasses you see on the exterior of some higher-starch pellets or stickier horse feeds.

Research has shown that high levels of sugar and starch actually create hormone fluctuations in horses. Hormone fluctuations can affect insulin, which is a trigger in metabolic horses for physical issues, such as laminitis.

Some research shows that high-sugar/high-starch horse feed ingredients increase dopamine. While dopamine is thought of as a “happy” hormone, it can lead to elevated “awareness” or hyperexcitability in horses.

Recently, there’s been a lot of research into the microbiota of the horse’s GI tract. The “bugs” that live in the digestive tract are being affected by whatever you feed. There is a “gut-brain” relationship, so what we are feeding the gut microorganisms can affect the brain. Researchers know that diets high in sugar and starch disrupt the microbiota, so that could contribute to some of the unwanted behavior.

Something else that is known about equine diets high in sugar and starch is that those ingredients increase the likelihood of digestive upset. That could result in gastric ulcers or issues in the hindgut. Some of those “emotional” horses might actually be uncomfortable or in pain.

Starch vs. Sugar in Equine Diets

Nutritionists starting looking at the concept of decreasing non-structural carbohydrates in equine diets 20-30 years ago. The first focus was on starch. However, it’s important to realize that starch in the small intestine is rapidly broken down into its individual sugar components—mostly glucose. When glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, it has many jobs in the body. However, that glucose spike could be one of the things that causes “hyperexcitability” in horses.

Today, equine nutritionists and researchers realize it isn’t that simple. For example, sugars can be fermented in the stomach into volatile fatty acids. Those can lead to the compromise of the lining of the gut, which can lead to ulcers.

An equine nutritionist can help delve into ingredients and manage equine diets to reduce those ingredients that are potentially causing problems. That means possibly eliminating some ingredients and substituting others in order to ensure the diet is balanced.

High-Sugar Horse Pastures

Horse owners are always trying to figure out when sugar levels in pastures are high or low so they can better manage grazing. That’s especially true for horses with metabolic issues.

Fresh pasture, specifically spring pasture, can be incredibly high in sugar. That sugar combined with weather changes could make horses feel better, or a little more “emotional.”

When you have warm, sunny days and chilly nights, the grass accumulates sugar. Horses love spring grass and will graze even the shortest blades, consuming pounds of fresh forage each day. This can add a lot of sugar in their diets.

A horse grazing spring grass is like a kid at an all-you-can-eat dessert bar with grandma in charge. There’s a lot of sugar, which can impact hormones, and for some horses, all that fresh grass could be creating digestive upset.

Does Alfalfa Make My Horse Hot?

Alfalfa hay is another one of those feedstuffs that horse owners sometimes shy away from because they are worried about the “emotional” consequences. There might be a small percentage of horses that become “reactive” when fed alfalfa hay. But, alfalfa hay shouldn’t be fed in the same quantities as grass hay.

If you fed three flakes of grass hay, then switch (gradually) over to three flakes of alfalfa hay, you are feeding more pounds of hay. Alfalfa is also more calorically dense. So, with alfalfa, you are providing a lot more quantity and energy than when you were feeding grass hay. Energy has to go somewhere, and it might go toward gaining weight or extra energy—which you might or might not appreciate!

This makes some horse owners ask if it’s the higher protein in alfalfa that makes horses “emotional.” As an example: “What happens when your kids are at a birthday party and have candy and cupcakes? Did they ever act that way after you gave them a hamburger or steak?”

Same thing with horses.

They get “high” off of sugar, not protein. The protein contributes to energy, but protein is not a metabolically efficient way to add excess energy to the diet. We often run into horse owners who only want a 10% protein feed. But as she noted, it’s not the protein that is driving your horse’s emotional state.

Can Horse Feed Ingredients Change Equine Personalities?

While not trying to disparage any certain horse breed, can you take your normally “emotional” Thoroughbred or Arabian horse or barrel racing Quarter Horse and change that animal’s personality by changing horse feed ingredients?

We know that diet influences equine behavior, but horses are individuals and they have a baseline behavior. You can’t take a horse that is, by nature, a “hot” animal and make it a calm, quiet kid’s packer just by changing its diet. But, diet can influence that behavior. You may be able to take that horse “down” a notch or two with changes in diet. For example, if you are feeding a “hotter” horse two scoops of high NSC sweet feed twice per day, there are some dietary changes that can help that horse not be so “emotional.”

Replacing Horse Feed Ingredients

Provided a horse isn’t obese, the more forage you can feed (as opposed to horse feeds or grains), the better you can help that horse’s emotional state. But what can we replace starch and sugar with?

If your horse needs calories from their horse feed, we recommend looking for one that is higher in fat and fiber and lower in sugar and starches, which will provide a more “calm” energy.

A horse needs a healthy body condition. Sometimes, people adopt or rescue horses that are 300 pounds underweight and act very calm, but once that horse is back at its normal weight, its personality could be totally different.

We recommend giving horses the energy they need to do their jobs, but focus on providing digestible fiber and fat, as these are “cool calorie” sources. Avoid hot, emotional ingredients, such as corn and oats. When you are looking at ingredients on a horse feed tag, remember that sugar and starch are not required to be labeled. Therefore, look for feeds that do include that information.

When looking for higher fat and fiber sources, remember to make sure those are digestible sources of fiber. Ingredients such as oat hulls and rice hulls are included in horse feeds to increase the fiber value on the feed tag, but they are essentially indigestible.

The amount of a horse feed that is fed to a horse is also important. When fat is added to the horse’s diet, the meal sizes tend to be smaller. Fat reduces the starch and sugar levels, but also allows you to reduce the amount you are feeding and still have a balanced diet.

In conclusion, we can influence a horse’s “emotions” with horse feed ingredients. Need help with your horse’s diet? Our team would love to put together a personalized feeding plan based on your goals and your horse’s needs!

Article By: Kimberly S. Brown
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