Tag Archive for: behaviour

Why your horses won’t show you they are in pain: Lessons from Chewy and the chicken!

Heads up! Your horses WILL NOT show you they are in pain until the pain is so bad they can no longer hide it!

Why? Because they are prey animals!

And if you’ve ever watched a David Attenborough documentary you will know that the old, sick or injured are the ones that get EATEN!

So if you are a prey animal and you are old, sick or injured, you hide it for as long as you can… so you don’t get eaten.

Why is there a photo of a dog and a chook you ask?

I know that might seem a bit random but it is because the dog (predator) was showing me EXACTLY why the prey (in this case the chicken) try not to show they are unwell.

My dog Chewy normally pays no attention to my chickens.

But for three days she stalked this chicken who was ancient by chicken standards, I suspect senile and on her way out. Chewy literally sat by the fence or stalked her as the chicken moved up and down the fence, just watching and waiting for her chance (which she never got, just so you know!).

It really struck me that the old, sick or injured animals really are targeted. Chewy could easily catch any of the chickens, but she never bothers to stalk them… but this one she did! She just instinctively knew she was an easy catch and was waiting for her chance.

Instinctively horses know this! They know if they show signs of weakness they put themselves at risk.

Why am I telling you this?

Well…so that you understand that just because your horses ‘seem ok’ doesn’t necessarily mean they are. And as owners and riders we need to be SUPER vigilant for any small indications our horses may give us that something isn’t right.

Gastric ulcers are a classic example… and we often come across horses with severe ulceration but no ‘symptoms’ as such save for some subtle changes in behaviour or appetite, or even just a swishing of the tail when being ridden.

The moral of the story? Be vigilant, FEED WELL (because nutrition is your best form of prevention of many diseases and conditions) and be on the lookout for really subtle indications that something isn’t right because it might be all your horse ever shows you for fear of being eaten!



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Teff Hay vs Rhodes Grass Hay

Teff Hay seems to have suddenly appeared as a hay option for many horse owners and because it is sold as a low starch low sugar hay it is starting to be recommended in place of Rhodes Grass Hay.

BUT, if you are lucky enough to have access to Rhodes Grass Hay, I wouldn’t be eager to swap. Here is why:

1. Rhodes Grass Hay is low in oxalate, containing approximately 2.5 to 3 g/kg of oxalate.

Teff Hay is moderate to high in oxalate at 10 to 12 g/kg. This means Teff needs careful supplementation of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium to prevent it from causing Bighead Disease. With Rhodes being so low in oxalate Bighead is not an issue (though you do still need to make sure you correctly balance the diet for minerals and vitamins as forages rarely contain enough to meet a horse’s requirement).

2. Rhodes Grass Hay is more reliable and consistent when it comes to the low starch, low sugar characteristic.

From the analyses we have seen coming through here at FeedXL Teff can be high in starch, with one analysis sent through showing an as-fed starch content of 7.1% and total NSC of of 13.7% which for a laminitic horse is going to be too high. While soaking would more than likely bring this non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) level back down to safe levels it makes for much more time consuming feeding… so if you have access to Rhodes Grass it would be much easier to use this.

3. Teff Hay causes some odd behavioural issues in some horses and this is normally associated with an alkaline fecal pH.

We have no way of explaining this, and it doesn’t happen with all horses on Teff so I don’t know if all Teff Hay is the same or if there is a certain variety that causes this issue.

So while Teff gives people in cooler climates a low NSC option which is welcome, it is not yet well understood and not without its issues. If I had a choice between Teff and Rhodes I would go with Rhodes Hay every time.



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Should You Feed More to a Horse That Feels Tired and Lazy?

Well… it depends! If your horse is light in condition and possibly losing some weight and feels tired and lazy then yes, feeding more is probably the solution. Light condition and/or weight loss are both symptoms of note quite enough calories in the diet. Feeding more and increasing calorie intake should help with energy levels when being ridden.

BUT! If your horse is overweight or gaining weight, more feed is not the answer to overcoming your horse feeling tired or lazy when being ridden. This feeling/behaviour could be caused by multiple things, including just a lack of fitness or even a lack of education in the ‘go forward’ area.

But, overwhelmingly when we work with horses like this, more often than not the horse is tying up. But tying up on such a mild level that the only real symptom is this feeling of being tired and lazy when ridden.

Because changing diets to a diet suitable for a horse with tying up is simple and safe, it is worth a shot to see if your horse’s level of energy improves with a change in diet. Most horses that feel like this are warmblood or warmblood crosses or heavy horse or heavy horse crosses, which means the most likely form of tying up will be PSSM (polysaccharide storage myopathy).

If you eliminate all grain and grain by-product from the diet of a horse with PSSM and keep starch and sugar levels as low as possible, you should see an improvement in energy levels within 2 to 3 weeks (provided the horse is fit enough to do the work you are asking).

FeedXL can help you with this. You simply tick ‘Tying Up (PSSM)’ in your horses details and then FeedXL will colour code the ingredients in its database according to whether they are suitable for a horse with tying up or not.

Makes it much easier than trying to sift through the unfortunately sometimes misleading marketing information from manufacturers to work out what feed ingredients might be suitable or not.

For more information on feeding a horse that ties up, read our article Feeding Horses that Tie Up.



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Gut Bacteria, Vitamin B1, and Behaviour: Are They Linked?

The short answer is yes! Here is how:

Vitamin B1 has been observed to have an influence on behaviour in multiple animal species, including horses. A horse will meet its vitamin B1 requirements via the vitamin B1 it eats in its diet and from vitamin B1 produced by the bacteria in its hindgut.

There are two main families of bacteria living in your horse’s hindgut:

1. The fiber fermenting bacteria who love to ferment fibre from the forage your horse eats. These little critters are the ones we consider the ‘good bacteria’; and
2. The starch and sugar fermenting bacteria who prefer to ferment starch and sugars. These we generally consider to be the ‘bad bacteria’.

The good bacteria PRODUCE vitamin B1 that your horse can then absorb and use.

On the other hand, the bad bacteria produce a compound called ‘Thiaminase’ that actually destroys vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine) that is in the gut, making it useless to your horse.

If your horse has too many bad bacteria, and not enough of the good ones your horse may not get enough vitamin B1 and behavioural changes may occur.

How do you avoid this? Keep your horse’s hindgut healthy with an abundant population of good bacteria. The main two things you should do to achieve this are:

1. Feed lots of forage!; and
2. Never feed uncooked grains (with the exception of oats for some horses)

For more tips on caring for your horse’s hindgut, read our article Keeping the Hindgut Healthy.



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Feeding the ‘Off-The-Track’ Thoroughbred

I think we all know of a few ‘amazing’ stories about thoroughbreds rescued from the brink of going to slaughter and going on to be amazingly talented horses performing to Olympic level. I am also sure there are thousands of stories where thoroughbreds have been re-homed and re-educated to be dependable, talented riding horses.

The fact it can be done though doesn’t mean it is an easy task. Many thoroughbreds, and especially those who have raced take a lot of time and patience to re-educate and re-condition to live and work as a pleasure or performance horse. While there is no doubt that good education from a ‘steady hand’ is of utmost importance in a thoroughbred’s ‘transformation’, a large part of their transition from racehorse to riding horse is dependent on good nutrition. In this post we will look at the rather unique situation of feeding an off-the-track thoroughbred and the strategies you might use to get the best results.


In a survey we conducted in 2001 while I was a student at UNE that was later published in the Australian Veterinary Journal (Richards et al 2006) we found that thoroughbreds in racing stables are fed an average of 7.3 kg of grain based feed per day. Some trainers fed as much as 13 kg of grain per day and feeding just twice a day was the norm.

Oats was the most commonly fed grain while corn, barley and commercial feed mixes were also popular choices. It was uncommon for trainers to use ‘cooked’ grains. As a result of these high grain diets fed in large meals where much of the starch would be considered indigestible in the small intestine we found that around 25% of horses were experiencing hindgut acidosis.

To make things worse for these horses very little forage is fed. Less than 1 kg/day of chaff was fed by a majority of trainers while horses only received hay an average of 1.5 times a day. We didn’t actually weigh the hay but the amount was small (probably around 2 kg/horse/day).

Essentially what you are likely to end up with when you take a thoroughbred directly from the racetrack is a horse whose gut has adapted as best it can to high grain diets and in the process has lost some ability to do well on high forage diets.


Some of the problems associated with feeding and nutrition you are likely to encounter in these off-the-track thoroughbreds include:

  • An imbalance of the bacterial species in the hindgut. The horse’s hindgut contains two main ‘families’ of bacteria, those that ferment fibre and those that ferment starch and sugars (there is a 3rd group called lactate utilising bacteria but for the purposes of this topic we shall just focus on the two main families).What you would find if you could ‘see’ these two families of bacteria in the hindgut of a healthy horse fed a largely forage based diet is large populations of the fibre fermenting bacteria and much smaller populations of the starch/sugar fermenting ones. This however would be the opposite in a recently raced thoroughbred. You would see the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria in abundance while the fibre fermenting ones would be only in very small numbers. To make things worse, even though some fibre fermenting bacteria would still be present, the acidic environment the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria create means the fibre fermenting bacteria can’t function very well.What this all means is that fibre fermentation and therefore the horse’s ability to extract digestible energy from pasture, hay, chaff, haylage or high energy fibres like sugarbeet pulp, soybean hulls, lupin hulls or copra meal is severely limited. They might be eating a lot of fibre but will be able to digest very little of it.
  • Gastric Ulcers. It is estimated that as many as 90% of horses in race training have gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcers cause many problems but perhaps the two most relevant in the situation of feeding an off-the-track thoroughbred are the loss of appetite and weight loss. To get these ex-racehorses looking and feeling ‘normal’ they need to eat and they certainly don’t need anything like gastric ulcers to be causing further weight loss.
  • Hoof problems – Shelly, weak hooves that grow slowly are common issues seen in off-the-track thoroughbreds. Horses rely on biotin produced in the hindgut as well as dietary biotin to grow strong, healthy hooves. I believe, that largely due to the imbalance of bacteria in the hindgut, racing horses become biotin deficient and this is why we see so many with horrible hooves.
  • Poor appetites – It is quite common for ex-racehorses to have poor appetites. In many cases this is probably due to gastric ulcers but it may also be due to a vitamin B1 deficiency. As for biotin, horses rely on vitamin B1 being produced by the fibre fermenting bacteria in the hindgut to meet their requirements. When horses have a large amount of starch being fermented in their hindgut very little vitamin B1 is produced. And what is worse is the starch/sugar fermenting bacteria also produce ‘thiaminase’, an enzyme that actually destroys vitamin B1 in the gut. Both factors combine to create a vitamin B1 deficiency that is well known to cause a loss of appetite.


The first critical step in getting a thoroughbred back to ‘normal’ is to restore the balance of bacteria in the hindgut and get fibre digestion working properly again. If you have the time, this is easily done by simply putting the horse on a forage only diet with as much forage available as the horse would like to eat. Over time, the starch/sugar fermenting bacterial populations will fall (because you simply aren’t feeding them their preferred food anymore) and the fibre fermenting bacterial populations will SLOWLY be restored.

The fibre fermenting bacteria are somewhat slow to reproduce so this isn’t something that is going to happen very quickly. You may also find that particular species of fibre fermenting bacteria have almost completely disappeared from the hindgut (something you really can’t test for) so it takes a long time for the population to get back to normal.

Many people ask if probiotics will help. The simple answer is no, the majority of them won’t. Many probiotics are designed to assist with killing or suppressing pathogenic bacteria in the gut and they predominantly contain lactobacillus species of bacteria. Lactobacillus are starch/sugar fermenting bacteria and one of the groups of bacteria you want to reduce numbers of, not increase.

What may help is using a fecal transplant, which is stomach tubing the horse with a strained slurry of manure taken from a healthy (worm free) horse on a high forage based with the goal of introducing the healthy bacteria from the donor horse to the gut of your off-the-track racehorse. This strategy is used with great results in feedlot cattle affected by acidosis to repopulate the rumen with ‘good’ bacteria.

While this process of rebalancing the hindgut takes time it is essential if you want to have a horse that has a gut that functions normally.

Fecal Transplant Method

Here is how to carry out a successful fecal transplant:

  1. Place your off-the-track horse on omeprazole (full treatment dose) for a couple of days prior to fecal transplant (this will just cut the acid production in the stomach and make it more likely that the bacteria will make it through alive).
  2. Take 500 grams of fresh feces from a suitable donor (one who is on a high forage diet with a healthy hindgut and parasite free).
  3. Gently mix the feces in 2 litres of luke warm water, sieve to remove large particles and then add 100 grams of grass or other fibre only pellets (make sure they are grain free with a very low starch and sugar content). Other options would be alfalfa, soybean hull, beet fibre or lupin hull pellets.
    At this stage be careful not to shake the mixture and run a sieve through the mixture to collect large particles as opposed to pouring the mixture through the sieve… this will help to keep the manures exposure to air as minimal as possible because oxygen will kill many of the good bacteria and these are the ones we want very much alive!
  4. Administer while still warm via gastric intubation (this is a veterinary procedure and must be carried out by your veterinarian).

Reference: Mathijs et al (2019) Free Faecal Water: What do we know and can equine faecal microbiota transplantation be used to manage this issue? European Equine Health and Nutrition Congress, Utrecht, The Netherland


To a large extent getting the hindgut functioning normally will correct issues the horse may have with its hooves being weak, shelly and/or growing slowly. Once the fibre fermenting bacteria are back and producing biotin again you should see good improvement in hoof quality (assuming requirements for nutrients like copper and zinc are being met). You may however like to use a hoof supplement to provide additional biotin to the horse in the short term. It is recommended that to positively impact hoof growth you should feed 20 mg of biotin per day for a 500 kg horse. If you do wish to feed biotin, use FeedXL to help select your hoof supplement. The amount of biotin in the diet is on the ‘Health’ tab. This will guide you in working out dose rates to meet your horse’s requirement for this nutrient.


Again getting the hindgut rebalanced will go a long way to improving the appetite of off-the-track thoroughbreds as they will be able to correct any vitamin B1 deficiency that may have been present. You can also use one of the many appetite or vitamin B1 supplements on the market to try and improve appetite. But remember that gastric ulcers are likely lurking in the stomach of your new horse and until they are resolved a poor appetite is likely to be present, regardless of what you feed or how you try to tempt the horse.

Gastric ulcers really must be treated so they resolve fully (talk to your vet about the most effective treatment options). There are some good US studies that show alfalafa/lucerne hay will help gastric ulcers to resolve given enough time. Incorporating alfalfa/lucerne into the forage base of the horse’s diet (up to 1 kg/100 kg BW or 1 lb/100 lb BW) may therefore also help to resolve ulcers and then to keep them at bay once treatment ceases. Once the ulcers are gone you should see a marked improvement in the horse’s appetite.


Often the biggest priority for the owner of a new off-the-track thoroughbred is to get the horse gaining weight. While you could ‘feed the heck out of them’ and give them large amounts of grain based feed to put weight on them you are going to miss the opportunity in doing this of getting their entire gastrointestinal tract functioning ‘normally’ again. If you force weight gain with grain based feeds many of the problems discussed above will still be present and the horse still won’t be utilising fibre very efficiently. The end result is a horse that will need A LOT of feed to hold its weight long term (which is going to cost you a fortune).

So if time is on your side and you can be patient, hold off on pushing for weight gain until your horse has restored the balance of bacteria in its hindgut again and can properly utilise the fibre in its diet. Once it can do this you will find it takes a whole lot less feed to put weight on them. It is also crucial that any problems with ulcers have been resolved and that appetite has been restored before any attempt to put weight on the horse is made.

A note about fence walkers – Separation anxiety and fence walking is a common problem with newly off-the-track thoroughbreds. Given they are raised in groups and are virtually never left alone it is understandable. But if you think about it, a horse walking a fence instead of grazing has a high energy output and a low energy intake … there is no way you are going to put weight on a horse doing this. If you have a fence walker that needs to gain weight you are going to need to find it a buddy who is calm and spends a lot of time grazing and sleeping. The sooner your new horse can learn to do this the better.

Thoroughbreds are certainly capable of gaining and holding a lot of weight. It is just a matter of getting their gut (relatively simple) and their mind (sometimes not so simple … is that diplomatic enough?) sorted out. I see overweight thoroughbred weanlings, yearlings and broodmares all of the time, they are common. So with some patience and strategy you will be able to get weight on and keep weight on your horse.


Thoroughbreds are typically thought of as being quite ‘hot’ – the “react and then think” types. This issue is compounded when you take a horse that only has very basic education, straight off the race track and immediately start trying to ride it at the same time as you are trying to feed it a high energy diet for weight gain.

Again, patience is king here. Give the horse time to adjust to its new environment and in the early stages of its re-education feed a very basic (but still balanced diet, be sure to use FeedXL to make sure all nutrient requirements are met), high forage, moderate energy diet with no grain. The more education you can give a horse before you really start feeding it ‘the good stuff’ for weight gain the better.


Here is a guideline for how you might approach feeding a thoroughbred that has come directly out of a racing stable:

Month 1 – Put the horse out to pasture or give it access to ad lib good quality grass hay and feed 1 kg/100 kg BW of alfalfa/lucerne per day. Use FeedXL to balance the diet correctly using a pasture balancer pellet or low dose vitamin and mineral supplement. If possible just let the horse be a horse without any pressure to be ridden or trained (other than to have good ground manners if these are lacking).

You should treat the horse for ulcers where applicable, have a faecal egg count done and worm appropriately and have teeth/hooves etc attended to by qualified professionals during this first month.

Months 2 to 4 – Depending on the how the horse is going and how well its hindgut is functioning by the second month you may be seeing an improvement in condition or a worsening of condition. If the horse’s condition is dropping away check for issues like ulcers (they could still be present), general anxiousness (is the horse pacing the fence constantly) or pain, for example a back injury that is making it uncomfortable for the horse to graze/eat properly.

During these months you may begin to add some high energy feeds but if the horse’s hindgut still doesn’t appear to be functioning correctly (eg its manure consistency is still not right or it is still really struggling to hold weight on a high quality pasture/hay diet) I would try to stay away from grains and grain based feeds. Use ingredients like grain free complete feeds (FeedXL will help you find truly grain free feeds), lupins, sugarbeet pulp, soybean or lupin hulls, full fat soybean and copra meal. If you are going to start riding the horse during this time these feeds might also help to keep your horse a little more level headed. Just mind you don’t give it a very high energy diet before you start riding it – for some horses that is just asking for trouble.

Months 5 to 12 – I would hope that by the 5th month the horse’s hindgut is back to normal or at least close to normal and by this time the horse will have semi-adjusted to its ‘new’ life. At this point in time you can consider other feeds including those based on grain. But PLEASE be sure to use cooked grain based feeds because the last thing you want to do at this point in time is put any sort of starch back into the hindgut.

The horse’s temperament and need for weight gain at this stage will determine how much feed you can feed. Still use forage as the major component of the diet and try to avoid feeding more than 800 grams of feed (approx. 1 lb) per 100 kg BW per day, being sure to split it into as many feeds as practical during the day.

You might also consider starting to add some high fat feeds like rice bran or straight vegetable oils to the diet for extra energy to help with body condition. At this point in time you need to be very careful to distinguish between condition/fat and muscle. Many thoroughbreds will look very thin when they are actually in good body condition, while they lack topline and general muscle. So be sure to read our post on Body Condition Scoring to help you determine if your horse needs more condition or needs to build muscle. The former can be done with feed alone. The latter needs a combination of high quality feed and the right work (as well as a horse that is fully sound with no back or other pain that will stop it from using its muscles correctly).


The more time you allow an off-the-track thoroughbred to readjust to a forage based diet the better the results you will get. A racing thoroughbred’s gut is adapted to eating a high grain diet. Ultimately you want your off-the-track thoroughbred to have a gut well adapted to doing well on a high forage diet. It takes time for the gut to readapt itself, build the right populations of bacteria and to heal problems like ulcers. But it is time well worth spending (unless you want to continue spending a fortune on grain based feeds and still having a horse that is really difficult to put weight on).

Taking it slowly in the first few months will mean you are going to get your horse where you want it to be sooner in the end. You will hopefully also be treated to a horse that is more relaxed and trainable than it otherwise would be if you try to put weight on too quickly using high energy feeds too early.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


Feeding the ‘Pony Club’ Mount

A good Pony Club mount is a precious commodity and they often require special care to keep them fit, healthy and active for as many years as possible. Sound nutrition should form the basis of this care. Pony Club mounts are also carrying an even more precious load, your children; and in this respect, temperament is everything. The following article gives you some tips on how to feed your Pony Club mount to keep them healthy and calm without costing yourself a fortune.

Tip #1 – Base the diet on forage

Diets that are based on good quality hay or pasture have many advantages. They keep horses calm, healthy and content, they are cost effective and they reduce the risk of major diseases like colic. As a rule your Pony Club mount should be fed a minimum of 2 kg/100 kg of bodyweight/day of hay or given free access to pasture (provided excess weight isn’t an issue).

If your Pony Club mounts are able to hold their condition on pasture or hay alone all you need to do is provide them with a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement and you will have a diet that keeps them happy, healthy and calm on a shoestring. FeedXL can help you to work out which supplement to use and what dose rate will work best.

If you find they can’t hold their weight on grass based pasture or hay alone even when they are being fed as much as they can eat, try adding some lucerne/alfalfa hay to the diet. If this still isn’t enough you will need to add a complete feed suitable for Pony Club mounts to their diet.

Tip #2 – Use suitable complete feeds

Some feeds can affect a horse’s temperament, so if you do need to use a complete feed for your Pony Club mount choose carefully. If you have a mount that tends to get hot when fed higher energy feeds, look for a non-grain complete feed that provides cooler energy from fat and fiber sources (Tip: to make it easy to find these feeds when using FeedXL, tick ‘Grain Intolerant’ when filling in your horses details and the unsuitable feeds will be in red in the feeds list). Likewise if your horse or pony is prone to laminitis, select feeds that contain no grain or grain by-product with a sugar and starch (NSC) content of less than 10 – 12% (again by ticking ‘Laminitis’ in your horse’s details in FeedXL, unsuitable feeds will be ‘red listed’ to help you steer clear of them).

If you have older mounts that are having trouble holding their weight or young horses that need extra energy, look for feeds that contain cooked and easy to digest grains and good quality protein.

Tip #3 – Don’t overfeed

Overfeeding will result either in an overweight horse or a hyperactive horse. One isn’t good for the horse, the other is certainly not good for its rider. When feeding your Pony Club mounts, feed them according to the work they are doing and their current body condition. Don’t be afraid to adjust the amount you feed on a daily basis according to if and how hard they were ridden that day and what their temperament or body condition is like.

For example, you might feed 2 kg of a complete feed on days your mount is ridden for at least an hour with 50% or more of this time being solid trot and canter work. On days that horse is not ridden, it might only be fed 0.5 kg of feed plus its hay or pasture. Condition score your mounts regularly and assess their temperament and adjust their feed according to whether they are gaining, holding or losing weight or whether they are feeling flat or a little hyperactive.

Tip #4 – Feed a balanced diet

Making sure all nutrient requirements including those for minerals and vitamins are met will keep your Pony Club mounts as healthy as possible. Common deficiencies of minerals like selenium can compromise a horse’s immune function, copper deficiency will lead to bleached coat colour and joint issues while a zinc deficiency will eventually lead to hoof problems. These nutrients are easily supplied in good quality vitamin and mineral supplements or well formulated complete feeds. Use FeedXL to assess if your mount’s requirements for these important nutrients are being met.

In Summary

Feeding the Pony Club mount should focus on keeping them healthy and active, yet calm. Feeding balanced diets based on forage and only using suitable feeds when needed will go a long way to achieving this goal. Adjusting the amount of any high energy feeds fed according to the horse’s workload, temperament and body condition will help to avoid excessive weight gain and hyperactive behaviour, while being sure to meet all vitamin and mineral requirements will keep hooves, skin, coats, muscles and joints healthy for as long as possible.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


Feeding on the Move

Takeaway anyone? How to feed your horse on the move

Horses in modern day society travel a lot. In fact it is amusing to think that throughout history, a horse’s most basic function was to transport humans from point A to B, and yet now we spend so much time and money transporting them. Transport for horses can be stressful, both physically and mentally. But as with all things, having a well prepared horse at the start of a journey means you have a far better chance of having a healthy horse at the end of the journey. Feeding and nutrition have a big role to play, both in preparing horses for a journey and keeping them healthy and content during the journey. The following article provides help with feeding before and during travel with horses.

Feeding before a journey

If you will be travelling less than 4 to 6 hours there is little need to do anything special before a trip aside from ensuring your horse is healthy and well fed prior to the trip and will have suitable feed and water available as soon as the journey has ended.

If you will be travelling more than 4 to 6 hours some special adjustments to the feeding routine can be made to assist horses during long-haul transport. These include:

  1. Increase the forage component of the ration – Forage is valuable to a travelling horse because it holds a large reservoir of water in the gut that can be used to keep the horse well hydrated during a long journey. Forages like hay and haylage are also a wonderful source of potassium and magnesium, two important electrolyte minerals. Feeding additional forage in the 2 to 3 days leading up to a long trip means your horse’s gut will be full of water holding, electrolyte rich fibre to help them get through long haul travel without becoming dehydrated. Additional forage also helps provide extra energy to reduce weight loss during a long trip.
  2. Moderate protein intake – Diets high in protein lead to an increased excretion of urea in the urine which is then converted by bacteria to ammonia. When confined in a transport situation, be it road or air transport, this ammonia accumulation in the air can damage the airways and lungs. To avoid large amounts of ammonia in the air, the amount of protein in the diet needs to be moderated. If your horse is on a diet with large amounts of lucerne hay or high protein pasture or feeds it is a good idea to reduce protein intake for 7 to 14 days before a long journey. Swapping some lucerne hay or high protein pasture for oaten or grassy hay and switching to a lower protein feed can help to achieve this. Use FeedXL to calculate your horse’s exact daily protein intake and reduce it where possible without compromising the quality of the diet.
  3. Reduce grain intake – High grain diets fed right up until a horse is transported can in some situations cause problems. They may lead to fractious behaviour and unnecessary stress during travel, they can precipitate tying up in susceptible horses and they also reduce gut fill and the amount of fibre a horse will consume. Reducing a horse’s grain intake by half for 2 to 3 days prior to travelling and increasing high energy fibre (see below) and forage intake will help to keep horses calm during travel, reduce the risk of tying up and maintain good gut fill and water storage in the gastrointestinal tract.
  4. Add high energy fibres to replace grain – some horses will lose weight if you reduce their grain intake. Many horses travelling long distances are also required to perform at a high level at the end of a journey, so maintaining energy intake is crucial. If you reduce grain intake, consider replacing the amount of grain removed from the diet with a high energy fibre. High energy fibres maintain energy intake, but also assist with water holding and maintaining gut fill.
  5. Work out your ‘water strategy’ – horses are notorious for not drinking at the most critical times, and during travel is no exception. Our equine friends often have no hesitation in turning their noses up at a bucket of water offered during travel, especially if it smells or tastes different to their water from home. Getting your horse to drink is critical during a long trip so you need to work out how you are going to achieve that. Taking your own water, using a flavour in the water so it tastes and smells the same regardless of where it comes from or using an electrolyte supplement to stimulate thirst are all possibilities.Whichever you choose, get your horse used to what and how it will be drinking at home prior to travel. If you will be taking your own water, start putting water in the bucket your horse will be drinking from while on the road and have it drink out of that for 4 or 5 days before you leave. If you are going to use a flavour, add it to your horse’s water for several days prior to the trip and again use the bucket you will use during travel. If you are going to use an electrolyte, talk to your vet or the product’s manufacturer about the best strategy in administering an electrolyte. Remember, never give an already dehydrated horse an electrolyte. And once you do administer an electrolyte, allow your horse free access to fresh water for at least 1 to 2 hours.

Feeding during the journey

If you are travelling more than 4 to 6 hours you should plan to stop every 3 to 4 hours to allow horses access to water and feed. Keep your horse’s feed routine on the road as close to what he would be fed at home as possible. So if you feed a hard feed morning and night with forage during the day, stick to this same routine.

Ideally horses should be allowed access to hay or haylage while travelling during these longer trips. If you are feeding hay, it should be thoroughly wet (submerse it in water for 5 to 10 minutes) before being put into the feed manger or hay bag for feeding to reduce dust and mould spore contamination of the air.

Where possible, hang the hay feeder low so the horse has to put its head down to reach the hay, but be sure to attach it to the transport vehicle in such a way that should the horse become entangled it will break free easily.

Any type of hay is suitable for feeding during long trips, though feeding a small amount of lucerne hay at each rest stop may help to provide better buffering of the stomach and reduce the risk of ulcers, which can be a problem for some horses travelling long distances.

If you are travelling over multiple days and your horse needs to perform at the end of the journey, you will need to continue with feeding at least some of its normal high energy ration. As discussed above, current recommendations suggest the amount of grain based feeds fed should be halved during travel days. If weight loss is an issue for your horse during travel you should add high energy fibre to its diet to replace the energy removed from the diet when the grain is reduced.

Other things that will help

There are many other management strategies you can put in place to help your horse stay healthy during long-haul travel, including:

  • Monitor rectal temperature twice daily for 2 days prior to a long trip to establish your horse’s normal rectal temperature patterns and ensure your horse is healthy at the beginning of the trip.
  • Monitor feed and water intake for 2 days prior to travelling to determine your horse’s normal feed and water intake amounts and patterns.
  • Once your journey is complete, again monitor rectal temperatures and feed and water intake for any sign that your horse may be getting sick. The faster you recognise any symptoms and have your horse treated the less likely serious complications will arise.
  • Stop every 4 to 6 hours for at least 15 to 30 minutes to allow your horse’s muscles to relax and have a break from constant movement. If possible, it is ideal to unload horses during these rest stops and allow them to put their head down and feed for 15 to 20 minutes to help clear their airways and reduce the risk of pleuropneumonia or travel sickness.
  • Allow your horse a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of untied rest every 8 to 12 hours of travel and during this time feed your horse from feeders placed at ground level to keep their heads down and facilitate the clearing of inhaled debris and microorganisms from their respiratory system.
  • Allow a minimum of 12 hours of untied rest with as much feeding at ground level as possible at the completion of the journey to allow your horse to completely clear its respiratory system before any sort of strenuous physical activity is undertaken. Working horses before they have a chance to clear their respiratory tract will increase the risk of pleuropneumonia.
  • Be very careful not to overheat your horse during travel. It is our tendency to want to rug horses up and keep them cosy while travelling, but this can do far more harm than good if they get overheated. Overheating causes them to sweat, losing valuable water and electrolytes. It also makes travelling very uncomfortable. Remember that travelling does take quite a lot of physical effort for a horse so they can get very hot quite easily.
  • Avoid the ‘head-up’ position during travel as much as possible. Avoid cross tying horses and where it is safe to do so, allow horses the ability to stretch their heads right down to ground level to allow them to clear their airways.

Happy travels!

Being well prepared with a healthy horse that is set up well to travel means you will have a very good chance of having a horse fit and ready to do what is required of it at the end of a journey. Subtle changes to the diet to increase forage and fibre intake, moderate protein intake and adjust grain or grain based feed intake all help to keep your horse content, healthy, well hydrated and at less risk of dehydration, impaction colic and injury or sickness during travel.

Taking adequate time to complete a journey, giving your horse regular rest stops and allowing it to feed in a head down position for good periods of time to clear its airways will also significantly reduce the risk of your horse developing pleuropneumonia. And of course, FeedXL will help you to make the required changes to a travelling horse’s diet without upsetting the diets balance which could cause you to unknowingly create other issues.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


Pasture: Is it Affecting Behaviour?

Is Pasture Affecting Your Horse’s Behaviour?

During times of the year when pasture is young, lush, very green and growing quickly it is common to find horse owners having problems with their horse and particularly their behaviour. Normally quiet, calm horses can become ‘spooky’, behave erratically and become excited easily, show signs of incoordination, muscle tenseness, soreness or twitching and in severe cases may become dangerously aggressive and exhibit unusual herding behaviour.

Until recently, the spookiness and excitability was often assumed to be due to the high energy content of the lush grasses. This may indeed still be a contributor, but when looking at all of the symptoms together it becomes clear that another underlying problem exists. The problem is, it is not very clear what this underlying issue is.

Magnesium deficiency has been proposed several times, but most horse nutrition texts give no reference to pasture having the ability to cause a magnesium deficiency, much less that magnesium deficiency is capable of causing all of the symptoms seen.

While this is a topic that one could easily spend years researching without answering many of the questions we now have, the following is my take on pasture induced magnesium deficiency and how it may be affecting your horse.

Can a magnesium deficiency really cause all of these problems?

The NRC 2007 publication reports that magnesium deficiency may cause ‘nervousness, muscle tremors and ataxia (incoordination), with the potential for collapse, hyperpnea (deep breathing) and death’. It goes on to say that ‘while uncommon, tetany in transported horses has been attributed to hypocalcaemia and potentially hypomagnesemia’. The NRC 1989 publication also stated that ‘pastures that are conducive to magnesium deficiency, tetany and death in ruminants do not affect horses similarly’. It then goes on to say that ‘no evidence was found in the literature to support this claim’. I am pointing this out only to demonstrate how little is known about this condition in horses. On reading this information about magnesium it would be easy to assume that a pasture induced magnesium deficiency in horses would be a rare occurrence.

The fact is, many horse people are reporting strange behaviour in horses during the times of year pasture is young, green, lush and rapidly growing so something is going on. With such little information available in horses on magnesium deficiency, we must again look to other animal species for clues.

It is quite well documented in ruminant animals that during phases of grass tetany (magnesium deficiency, most commonly seen in high producing dairy cows during early lactation grazing lush pastures) that affected animals are nervous with an overly alert appearance, they may lose coordination and ‘stagger’ and they may also become aggressive. Humans are also reported to suffer with cramps and muscle weakness as well as become confused, delusional, disoriented, suffer hallucinations and become aggressive during periods of magnesium deficiency. Hypocalcaemia (low plasma calcium) is also frequently observed in both humans and ruminants with magnesium deficiency. So while we don’t have direct, documented evidence in horses (yet), certainly the symptoms we are seeing in horses relate well to symptoms seen in other animal species under conditions of magnesium deficiency.

(The effects of magnesium deficiency in humans are far more extensive than listed above.)


The Science – why are these symptoms present?

OK, so here we go with some of the underlying science to these problems that will help to explain why a magnesium deficiency can cause the symptoms seen in horses.

Magnesium is essential for the functioning of a magnesium dependent enzyme called acetylcholine esterase. Acetylcholine esterase is needed for the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. During periods of magnesium deficiency, acetylcholine esterase does not function as it should and acetylcholine accumulates at the motor end plates causing neuromuscular excitability. This accumulation of acetylcholine is likely to contribute to the tense muscles, incoordination, muscle twitches and spookiness seen in magnesium deficient animals.

Magnesium is also needed for the adenyl cyclase enzyme which is involved in the action of parathyroid hormone. This compromised function of the parathyroid hormone (PTH) is thought to be the main cause of hypocalcemia which is commonly observed in magnesium deficient animal species including ruminants, humans and rats as PTH is needed for calcium absorption. PTH is also needed for magnesium absorption so magnesium deficiency predisposes an animal to a more severe magnesium deficiency by altering the function of the hormone needed for its absorption.

Magnesium is required for the phosphorylation of vitamin B1 (thiamine) into the biologically active thiamine pyrophosphate, so in effect a magnesium deficiency will cause a vitamin B1 deficiency, even when there is ample vitamin B1 in the diet. In humans, a vitamin B1 deficiency can cause confusion, and disorientation with sufferers reportedly becoming delusional and even hallucinating (maybe your horse really does see goblins hiding behind the tree!). Vitamin B1 deficiency can also lead to aggression. In horses, vitamin B1 deficiency is known to cause loss of appetite, incoordination, muscle twitching, tremors or stiffness, overflexing of the hindlegs, unnatural extension of the forelegs and hypothermia (low temperature) of the bodies extremities like the legs, muzzle and ears. Thiamine deficiency may also result in missed heart beats and lactate accumulation in the muscles.

Finally a magnesium deficiency affects nitric oxide production by motor neurons. In situations of low extracellular nitric oxide but high intracellular nitric oxide in humans, aggression can result.

This by no means is a complete review of how a magnesium deficiency may affect horses and again it is a subject I would need to research for years to fully understand (as there is some serious biochemistry involved). This mini review should however serve to demonstrate that should a magnesium deficiency occur, it is certainly capable of producing the varied symptoms being observed in horses by their owners.


So, now that we know a magnesium deficiency could be the root cause of the unusual symptoms and behaviours observed in horses grazing lush, green and rapidly growing pastures, let’s look at what it is about these pastures that can cause a magnesium deficiency.

Reduced Magnesium Absorption

Lush, young, rapidly growing pastures are well known to have high potassium and low magnesium levels. While direct evidence for horses is not available to my knowledge, in ruminant animals it is well known that excessive potassium can reduce the absorption of magnesium from the rumen. High dietary potassium is also reported to reduce magnesium absorption in humans. While it is only through extrapolating from data in other animal species, it is likely that excessive potassium in the equine diet also reduces the absorption of magnesium in horses. This reduced absorption, coupled with an already low magnesium concentration in the diet could possibly result in an induced magnesium deficiency, even if there appears to be enough magnesium in the diet to meet requirements.

The acid base balance of the body can also affect parathyroid hormone (PTH) release, with an alkaline body pH, which commonly occurs on high potassium diets, suppressing the release of PTH in some animal species … so maybe this is also playing a role … and maybe even supplementing magnesium help as the horse may not be able to absorb it due to low PTH levels.

Other dietary factors than can reduce magnesium deficiency include excess calcium (high dietary calcium reduces parathyroid hormone (PTH) release. As discussed above, PTH is needed for magnesium absorption), excess phosphorus (phosphorus can block the absorption of magnesium as it can calcium) or a vitamin D deficiency (also needed for magnesium absorption), vitamin B1 deficiency (affects magnesium absorption by altering the pH environment of the stomach) or vitamin B6 deficiency.

Increased Magnesium excretion from the body

High dietary potassium in lush green pastures not only reduces magnesium absorption in animals, but it can also increase the amount of magnesium excreted from the body, giving it a ‘double-whammy’ effect in causing magnesium deficiency.

In addition, under the right environmental conditions lush green pastures can also have large amounts of nitrate accumulated in their leaves, especially when plants are very young and in the one or two leaf stage. In order to remove nitrate from the body, ruminants and horses bond the nitrate to a cation (a positively charged ion which includes calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium) to form an ionic complex which is then excreted. Professor T.W. Swerczek, a researcher with the Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Kentucky, USA has reported that when a sodium deficiency exists (which is common in grass based pastures) nitrate is more likely to bond with calcium or magnesium, so under high nitrate conditions, a magnesium deficiency can occur.

Other factors that may increase magnesium excretion from the body include excess oestrogen (possibly putting mare’s or horses grazing estrogenic forages like some clovers at higher risk) and a dietary selenium deficiency (again this is not confirmed in horses but is taken from human data).

So with the combination of factors that reduce magnesium absorption and increase magnesium excretion from the body, a magnesium deficiency is certainly possible under the right conditions for horses grazing lush, green, rapidly growing pastures.

Do endophyte mycotoxins play a role?

They certainly could, though they need not be present for the symptoms of magnesium deficiency to appear. Ryegrass and fescue pastures that are infected with endophyte fungi may be more likely to contain higher concentrations of the problematic mycotoxins under high pasture potassium conditions (Swerczek 2003). Knowing whether or not they are involved is however going to be tricky as many of the symptoms of endophyte mycotoxicosis are very similar to those that could be caused by magnesium deficiency. Mycotoxicosis is however reported to be most likely when pastures are grazed down to the ground or when they are tall and rank, so it is less likely when the pastures are green, lush and growing rapidly.


Laminitis is often seen in horses during spring and autumn seasons when pastures are green, lush and growing rapidly. It is now known that insulin resistance and high levels of circulating insulin are the most likely cause for most pasture based cases of laminitis and this certainly does help to explain most cases. However, rapidly growing pastures and particularly rapidly growing pastures in warmer climates are unlikely to have large amounts of accumulated sugars and starches and yet laminitis can still be found on these pastures. So if it isn’t sugar and starch causing the laminitis, what is?

Insulin is used as a signal to cells to take in potassium from the blood. A really interesting study in cows and calves by Lentz et al (1976) found that high levels of potassium (infused as potassium chloride) caused significant elevations in plasma insulin and in the calves, this response was further exaggerated in magnesium deficient animals. So it is quite possible that the high potassium content of lush pastures coupled with an induced magnesium deficiency is causing laminitis by causing prolonged elevations of insulin, which presumably would be worse in insulin resistant animals. This would certainly make a very worthy avenue of research.

It is also possible that the high nitrate levels that can accumulate under the right environmental conditions in young, lush, green pastures leads to laminitis. There is gathering anecdotal evidence to support this theory but as yet no science to actually prove it.

Further, research by Paolisso et al, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1992) showed that administering magnesium to elderly patients at a rate of 4.5 g/day improved their glucose handling and insulin sensitivity. This finding begs the question of whether a transient magnesium deficiency that may occur in horses when grazing rapidly growing spring or autumn pastures increases the risk of laminitis for already insulin resistant horses during these periods by exacerbating their insulin resistant status.

What can you do about it?

While there may not be much published equine evidence to prove all of this is happening with your horse, if your horse is showing symptoms that could be related to a pasture induced magnesium deficiency there are some things you can do to help, including:

  • Seek veterinary advice if your horse is showing symptoms – magnesium deficiency to the point where an animal is showing symptoms is a serious medical condition and you should always consult your veterinarian for advice. Your horse may be deficient to the point where magnesium and calcium need to be administered parenterally to restore blood levels back to a point that will alleviate the most severe symptoms and also allow magnesium and calcium to be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract again (as very low magnesium levels turn down parathyroid hormone levels which then reduces magnesium and calcium absorption). It may be a good idea to discuss testing your horse’s level of parathyroid hormone as part of your vets overall assessment of your horse’s condition.
  • Remove animals from problem pasture – if it is possible you should remove your horse from the problem pasture as soon as any signs are evident. Or if you know your pastures are problematic at certain times of the year, plan in advance and have them off the pastures before the symptoms appear.
    If you are unable to remove your horse from the pasture completely you should somehow try to restrict intake of the pasture by using a grazing muzzle during certain periods of the day (if laminitis due to sugars isn’t a concern then muzzling overnight and early in the morning is suggested as this is when nitrate levels are highest) or by strip grazing the pasture in small amounts each day and providing a low potassium forage like a mature grass/meadow hay.
  • Use a low potassium forage as the base of the diet – mature grass hay will provide you with a lower potassium alternative to the lush pasture. If your horse is already suffering symptoms you should also soak the hay for 30 minutes to remove as much potassium from the diet as you can.
  • Supplement with magnesium, calcium, sodium and vitamin B1 – This is where it gets tricky as while we know you should supplement with these nutrients it is hard to say how much more you should add to the diet. Luckily though, all of these nutrients have a wide safety margin so we are afforded a nice big safety net.
    For a horse suffering with symptoms of magnesium deficiency, I would provide the following: Magnesium, sodium and vitamin B1 – an additional 100% of the recommended daily intake for your horse.
    Calcium – in theory, once you have corrected the magnesium deficiency and get the parathyroid hormone functioning as it should again you shouldn’t need to add additional calcium to the diet if the amount in the diet is already adequate. However, if your calcium to magnesium ratio in the diet is less than 2 parts calcium to one part magnesium on addition of the extra magnesium you should add enough calcium to bring this ratio back up to 2: 1.
  • Correct any deficiency of vitamin B6 and selenium that may exist in the diet – A deficiency of these nutrients leads to reduced magnesium absorption and increased magnesium excretion so it makes sense to ensure your horse’s requirements are met according to the FeedXL recommended daily intakes for these nutrients.
  • Avoid pastures, feeds and conserved forages that may contain oestrogens – Excess oestrogen reportedly increases magnesium excretion from the body so it would make sense to keep the dietary intake of plant derived phytoestrogens to a minimum during high risk periods of pasture induced magnesium deficiency. This includes avoiding clover, alfalfa/lucerne and feeds that contain soybean or soybean meal. These feed ingredients also tend to contain large amounts of potassium so avoiding them provides a double benefit (please note though that under normal circumstances all of these ingredients can play a valuable role in a horses diet so don’t go overboard in avoiding them all the time).
  • Learn to recognise high risk periods and either remove your horse from the pasture or begin magnesium, sodium and vitamin B1 supplementation early – Pastures are high in potassium and nitrates during rapid, early stages of growth which can be seen during any time of the year depending on the climate where your horse lives. Particularly high risk periods include pasture growth associated with drought breaking rains, frost periods, cloudy days, hot dry winds and cold weather. Any of these (very varied) climatic conditions can induce high potassium levels, high nitrate levels or both in pasture where soil potassium and nitrate is plentiful
  • PLEASE don’t ride your horse – if your horse is showing symptoms of magnesium deficiency please don’t try to ride. Your horse in this condition is both physically and mentally unstable and trying to ride would be the safety equivalent of getting into a car with a seriously drunk person and going for a drive – it really isn’t worth the risk and it won’t be enjoyable for you or your horse.

A very real, but not very well recognised syndrome

Having seen some severe cases over the last few years there is no doubting that this condition exists, but as yet it isn’t recognised in nutrition texts. While it may seem like a simple matter of adding extra magnesium to the diet to correct the issue it isn’t that easy as the various factors discussed above may be contributing to low magnesium absorption or high magnesium excretion rates. If your horse is exhibiting these symptoms or other unusual behaviour that you think may be linked to your pasture you should have your pasture analysed to determine mineral levels you are working with and work closely with your vet and FeedXL to get your horse’s diet rebalanced and your horse’s magnesium levels restored.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


Feeding for Calm Behaviour

There is nothing quite as unnerving or unenjoyable as riding a horse that is completely full of itself and constantly reacting before thinking. On a more subtle level a horse that won’t concentrate or continually overreacts to aids is frustrating. While education plays a major role in determining a horse’s behaviour under saddle, feeding can also have an impact.

What you feed, how much you feed and when you feed it can make a big difference. Here are some tips for feeding to assist your horse to maintain a calm and responsive attitude under saddle.

6 Feeding Tips for Calm Behaviour in Your Horse

1. Feed a forage based diet

Forage is soooo important when it comes to thinking about how to feed for calm behaviour! Here is why!

  • Chewing forage keeps a horse more mentally relaxed and calm. If they have a forage based diet, with an absolute minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight in forage per day (7.5kg for a 500kg horse) they spend more time chewing and mentally content which is then reflected in their behaviour.
  • Forage encourages the production of large amounts of saliva which buffers the acidity of the stomach fluid, keeping a horse more comfortable and calm.
  • Forage provides the fibre that is able to stop acid splashing around in the stomach. If a horse’s stomach is empty because there is not enough forage in the diet, the gastric acid can splash up onto the unprotected upper (squamous) region of the stomach, ‘burning it’ and causing discomfort. This discomfort can potentially lead to changes in behaviour.
  • Forages feeds the ‘good bacteria’ in a horse’s gastrointestinal tract. These bacteria then produce B-vitamins and hormones that are crucial for maintaining normal behaviour.
  • A high forage diet is also typically low in grain and therefore starch. Research has shown that these low starch diets are less likely to cause changes in behaviour.
  • Low starch diets are also less likely to result in starch overload to the hindgut. When starch overload does occur, bacterial populations shift toward the ‘bad’ starch fermenting bacteria and hindgut acidosis can result. Shifting bacterial populations and hindgut acidosis will both cause unwanted changes in behaviour.

2. Don’t feed too much

Horses that are fed more than they need for the work they do can become hyperactive and difficult to control. When feeding your horse, be careful to define your horse’s workload carefully and feed it accordingly. FeedXL defines light, moderate and heavy work as follows:

Light Work: 1 to 3 hours per week of walking (40%), trotting (50%) and cantering (10%).

Moderate Work: 3 to 5 hours per week of walking (30%), trotting (55%), cantering (10%) and skill work such as low grade jumping, dressage or cutting (5%).

Heavy Work: 4 to 5 hours per week of walking (20%), trotting (50%), cantering (15%) and galloping or skill work such as high level jumping, dressage or cutting (15%).

So not only does the total number of hours of work need to be considered, but the type and speed of work must be taken into account as well. Classifying your horse in a workload higher than they actually are and overfeeding is possibly the most common cause of hyperactivity (and equine obesity). Once you classify your horse’s workload correctly, use the Digestible Energy requirement calculated by FeedXL as a guide to how much you need to feed.

3. Alter feeding according to daily workload

If your horse tends to become hyperactive, especially following a day off, reducing the amount you feed from a working ration back to a maintenance ration on days off can help to solve this issue. Developing one diet for days your horse is ridden and another with similar ingredients but smaller portions for days off means your horse is only being fed what he needs on any given day.

To take this one step further, if you work your horse at varying intensities on different days you may develop a couple of different working diets. For example, if you lunge your horse for 30 minutes two days a week (light work), trail ride for 1.5 hours mainly at the walk and trot with some cantering 2 days per week (moderate work) and have dressage and show jump lessons or competitions 2 days per week for 1.5 to 2 hours each with mostly trotting and cantering as well as skill work (heavy work) and your horse has 1 day off you could have a maintenance diet for the day off, a light work diet for the lunging days, a moderate work diet for the trail days and a heavy work ration for the lesson and competition days. That way you are constantly adjusting feeding to suit workload and avoiding overfeeding.

4. Feed ‘cool’ feeds

Fibrous feeds that are fermented in the hindgut to release energy are the most natural and also the ‘coolest’ sources of energy for horses. Using forages like pasture, hay, and chaff to provide the majority of the energy in your horse’s diet will help to keep your horse calm and responsive.

Horses in light work should be able to happily exist on a diet made up almost entirely of forages with supplements added if and when needed (use FeedXL to determine when supplements are needed and which fit the diet best). So if your horse is in light work, don’t be too quick to reach for ‘hard feeds’, stick with forages, especially if your horse’s temperament is an issue.

However, horses in moderate to heavy work often need higher energy feeds added to their diet as most physically can’t eat enough forage to meet energy requirements. In these situations where energy requirements can’t be met by forage alone, cool energy sources such as high energy fibres (sugarbeet pulp, soybean hulls, lupin hulls and copra meal), oils and high oil feeds like rice bran can be used to boost energy intake without impacting on a horse’s behaviour (though there is no guarantee).

5. Avoid ‘hot’ feeds

Grains and grain based feeds, molasses and forages like alfalfa/lucerne hay tend to be commonly blamed for making horses ‘hot’. Whether this is because they do actually make horses hyperactive, or because they are energy dense feeds that are easy to overfeed and therefore by default make horses hot is hard to determine. In any case, if your horse reacts to grains, grain based feeds or forages like alfalfa, avoid using these in the diet.

To make it easy to avoid any feeds that contain grains or molasses, simply tick the ‘Grain Intolerant’ box when entering your horse’s details in FeedXL and any feeds or supplements containing grain, grain by‐ product or molasses will be marked in RED.

6. Feed a balanced diet

Some deficiencies like vitamin B1 (thiamine) and magnesium can have an impact on your horse’s behaviour. Use FeedXL to make sure your horse’s requirements for these and other important nutrients are met and avoid nutrient deficiencies that can alter your horse’s behaviour. If you’re not yet a member, click here to learn more.

A note on calming supplements

There are a plethora of ‘calming’ supplements on the market aimed at helping to calm a hyperactive horse. Whether these supplements work or not is difficult to establish. Many studies have been conducted to assess their effectiveness with contradicting results. Most however are safe supplements, commonly containing large amounts of the water soluble (and hence virtually non‐toxic) vitamin B1. Some also contain magnesium and an amino acid called tryptophan.

If you are fine tuning your horse’s feeding regime to ensure you are not overfeeding, adjusting feeding according to daily workload, feeding a diet based on forage, using cool energy sources when needed and feeding a balanced diet PLUS have your horse well educated and its behaviour is still a problem, then trying calming supplements to see if they have a positive impact is a feasible option. If they work, keep using your chosen supplement. If they don’t, keep adjusting the diet and working on education until the right balance is struck.

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida McGilchrist

Dr Nerida McGilchrist is FeedXL’s co-founder and equine nutrition specialist. She holds a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.



Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group


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