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The Effects of Horse Feed on Behavior

Throughout many conversations that I have had with horse owners and professionals, one regularly occurring statement they make is that they do not want their horses to get “hot” on a certain type of feed.  Some are referring to corn making their horses excitable.  Others believe it is high protein that causes undesirable behavior.  Whatever they have heard or seen from their own experiences, there still is much research to be done that is needed to lead to a definitive answer on what dietary components make horses “hot” or not.  Often times, feed is blamed when there are other factors contributing to high strung behavior.  Some of these include environment, level of exercise, and physical pain being experienced by the horse.  Horses are greatly affected by other horses around them, so an anxious stall neighbor could easily impact the other animal.  Furthermore, ulcers are a regularly seen ailment among show horses.  Ulcers would cause pain, which often times results in unruly behavior.  Whatever the true reason for bad behavior, there still are some considerations that can be made regarding feed that can have a positive impact on your horse.


First, an excess amount of calories will inevitably give your horse more energy than it needs…resulting in excitable behavior.  This happens the same way in humans.  We only need to consume enough energy for what we are putting out.   Make sure you are not feeding your horse too much.  Many people tend to over feed grain.  Take a good look at your feeding instructions on the feed tag or consult your local sales rep or nutritionist available through your feed supplier.   Also, there is some research that suggests feeding a lower starch feed will have a calming effect on behavior, but there is still much research that needs to be done in order for this to be definitive.  In addition, there is a rising amount of research being done on the effects of fat in a horse’s diet.  There seems to be a correlation between higher fat levels and calmer behavior.  Higher levels of fat lead to more level blood glucose and insulin levels.  Finally, mimicking how the horse was meant to live most naturally will have a great effect on behavior.  Feeding free choice hay, offering ample turnout time, and feeding frequent, small meals will all help in your horse’s attitude.


Since so much is still up in the air in regards to research on nutrition and behavior, I’ll just share my personal opinion on the best practices when feeding horses.  It would be a
wise choice to offer a free choice, low calorie, grass hay, turn out your horses as much as you can (I know this is not possible for some disciplines), and feed more than twice a day (3-4 small meals) if you are in fact giving grain to your horses.  If you are feeding grain, due to having competition and working horses, go for a grain that has higher fat levels (between 6 and 10 percent).  A higher fat feed will allow you to feed a smaller amount, but still offer an adequate amount of calories.  This is better for the horse’s digestive system and can help you avoid ailments like ulcers.  The better the horse feels, the better the results are that you will have while training.