Is your horse too fizzy under saddle or in hand? If so, training will seem the obvious answer. However, many people overlook the role that nutrition can offer in managing the energy levels of the horse.
The purpose of feeding
The purpose of feeding is to provide energy to support essential bodily functions and any additional work we require. Although energy is one ‘thing’, how the body uses it can differ depending on which nutrients supply the energy. This is how we can use our feed to help manage additional excitability.
Protein is a nutrient whose primary function is to grow and repair cells. It can also be an emergency energy source, but it is not very efficient and low yielding.
The more efficient nutrients for use as an energy source are fats and carbohydrates (both structural and non-structural).
Structural carbohydrates include the more complex structures such as cellulose (a component of fibre). Sources of these are our forages (grass, hay, haylage). These provide slow-release energy through fermentation in the hindgut that produces volatile fatty acids used as energy. Structural carbohydrates are the primary energy source for horses, which is why a forage provision is so important for them.
Non-structural carbohydrates include simpler structures than fibres that are made of similar molecules. These are the starches and sugars in hard feeds such as mixes and cereals like oats and barley. These break down in the small intestine by enzymes and converted into glucose molecules for fast-release energy. An excess of glucose can often contribute to excitable behaviour as it is very quickly available in the blood to be used immediately.
To help reduce over-excitable behaviours in horses, you can replace sources of non-structural carbohydrates with other nutrients that are a slower release of energy, such as fibre.
If your horse is in moderate or heavy work, it may need a greater amount of energy than fibre alone provides. In that case, the final nutrient that can provide efficient energy is fat.
Fat is an overlooked nutrient because it is not a high proportion of the natural equine diet. Fat yield a significant amount of energy at 2-3 times as much per molecule as glucose. It boasts many benefits to the horse as it provides an excellent energy supply without the side effects of non-structural carbohydrates. Fats can be easily added to any feed by adding in oils such as linseed oil. Still, like all aspects of the diet, this should be done gradually and not exceed ~500ml (consult a nutritionist if unsure of a suitable volume for your horse). When adding fats to the diet, supplementing antioxidants is essential to avoid oxidative stress caused by metabolic processes. However, if you may struggle with this, there are high oil feeds on the market that have balance formulations to aid in managing this.
To conclude, an easy switch for an over-excitable horse may be from a competition mix (often high starch and aimed at fast work) to a higher forage ration and, if needed, an endurance mix (higher in fats and aimed at ‘cooling’ the horse).