Nutritional Link to Equine Behavior

Today's equine management practices can be a recipe for disaster. For a horse, stall life and two meals a day might be like living in a prison, and that lifestyle might contribute to delinquencies and health problems in horses.

"These meals often contain a large soluble carbohydrate component and a low fiber component which allow the horse to consume the food rapidly, leaving a long time period with no food available," explains Cindy McCall, MS, PhD, professor at Auburn University and equine extension specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. She spoke at the 2004 Kentucky Equine Nutrition Conference for Feed Manufacturers held Oct. 18-19 in Lexington, Ky.

"Along with allowing soluble carbohydrates to reach the hindgut where its rapid fermentation may lead to colic and laminitis, this feeding regimen reduces intestinal bulk needed to maintain normal intestinal function and position and leaves the horse unsatiated," says McCall. "High-carbohydrate, low-fiber meals also reduce fill in the horse's stomach, which may lead to gastric irritation and ulcers."

If your "problem" horse is one that is excitable and difficult to handle, "A good diet for these horses may include one higher in fat," explains McCall. "It is reported that adding 10% fat to a typical hay/grain diet decreases excitability in horses when they are exposed to startling stimuli. This indicates dietary fat may have a calming effect on horses. Excitability in the horse may be more related to the source of energy in the diet than the amount of energy."

For those who own a horse with an oral behavior problem (cribbing, chewing, etc.), he might only be doing what nature intended him to do. "Lack of fiber in the diet has been implicated in behavioral problems such as wood chewing and tail chewing in the horse," says McCall. "However, horses maintained on pasture still exhibit these behaviors. Although wood chewing can be destructive to facilities, it may be a normal behavior in the horse."
Incidents of wood chewing seem to increase in cold, wet weather and might be a natural mechanism for horses to chew on something (often in a shed) without having to expose themselves to the elements to graze.

Cribbing is an oral stereotypy, which might have an environmental and/or genetic relationship. Cribbing increases with a low-forage, high-concentrate diet, giving sweet feed, and/or an irregular feeding schedule. McCall notes that cribbing increases saliva production, which acts as a gastric buffer. "Cribbers had drier mouths at an initial sample than non-cribbers, and the cribbing replenishes saliva."

McCall also found that cribbers have a lower gastric pH than non-cribbers, but when cribbing was prevented for two weeks, their gastric pH increased to a comparable level of a non-cribber. It was also found that when horses were administered Neigh-Lox (an antacid) for 30 days, placed in a paddock with an electrified fence, and had a portion of their grain replaced with a high-fat feed, the cribbing stopped. However, when the wire was removed, cribbing began again. It was concluded that a longer treatment time might be needed in order to truly affect the cribbing behavior. Additional factors such as pasture growth might affect the behavior.

McCall does caution horse owners that not all equine behavior problems are related to nutrition or feeding management, and it is often difficult to separate the effects of nutrition and other potential causative factors, such as a stressful environment.

"There are some common-sense management practices that might prevent the behaviors from developing, or reduce their frequency in horses," she says. "Naturalizing the nutrition, housing, and care of the horse to mimic free-ranging conditions as much as possible is the best option for reducing and preventing undesirable behaviors in the horse at the present time."

Preventing bad habits from starting begins at birth. "It probably is easier to prevent undesirable behavior in horses than to stop these behaviors once they become habits," concludes McCall. "Vigilant managers who can identify initial signs of anxiety and stereotypies in horses, and who are willing to individualize the care of these horses, are the primary protection against horses developing them."

About the Author

Marcella M. Reca Zipp, MS

Marcella Reca Zipp, M.S., is a former staff writer for The Horse. She is completing her doctorate in Environmental Education and researching adolescent relationships with horses and nature. She lives with her family, senior horse, and flock of chickens on an island in the Chain O'Lakes.

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