Q: Is it possible to feed a horse with the goal of improving his behavior?
A: The answer to this question obviously depends on the horse’s current diet and work, as well as what behavior you want to improve. But, for sure, the short and general answer is yes. Diet and feeding schedule, exercise, and style of human handling are likely the three most important factors in horses’ behavioral health. When evaluating a specific behavior problem or when advising clients on maintaining their horses’ behavioral and physical health, equine behavior specialists put a lot of thought into diet–not only what owners are feeding, but also the feeding schedule. Diet and feeding schedule are particularly important when it comes the most common vices: cribbing and other stereotypies, wood chewing, hyperactivity, or other problems associated with a “hot temperament” or tendency for anxious “meltdowns.”
Some of the current recommendations concerning effects of diet and feeding schedule on behavior are based on research, but most are based on experience and anecdotal evidence. This is one topic that could certainly benefit from more research, using well-designed studies in which the behavior evaluations are done by a researcher who is blinded to each horse’s diet and feeding schedule.
Providing your horse free access to forage (grass or hay) is important for both behavior and health. The horse’s digestive system has evolved to accommodate near-continuous ingestion of calorie-sparse roughage. In natural settings, which are in my opinion the gold standard of health and normal behavior, the stomach is probably never empty nor full. Gastric ulcers and their associated problematic behavior changes in these scenarios are probably quite rare.
In general, horses that can be maintained in reasonably good condition on mostly grass and grass hay seem to have the fewest behavior problems and also seem to have the most relaxed and easiest dispositions. This type of diet is closest to that for which the equine digestive system evolved to handle. Grazing species foraging under natural environmental conditions move as they forage continuously. In contrast, horses in stalls or paddocks with hay bunks are likely stationary while feeding. For horses fed in stalls, divide hay into small amounts placed at multiple locations around a stall. Most horses when eating will move from pile to pile in a style of “take a couple bites, take a couple steps,” that resembles natural movement during grazing. It may take a few days for this “stall grazing” behavior to emerge, but for most horses it does. It is my impression from watching 24/7 videos of horses in stalls fed in one place versus being fed so that they “stall graze” that their behavior pattern appears more normal and relaxed. They take considerably more footsteps per 24 hours when “stall grazing,” and they do so in a normally relaxed manner similar to horses grazing naturally.
For horses in heavy training or work that require more energy than can be provided with forage alone, feeding calories from oils (fat) rather than carbohydrates has been shown to result in fewer undesirable behavioral and physical health effects. Many of the currently marketed feed formulations have higher percentages of fat than the traditional sweet feeds. These higher fat formulations are recommended for preventing and alleviating behavior problems such as hyperactivity, stereotypies, “hot” or “anxious” temperament, and so forth.
Food urgency and food-related aggression are particular behavior problems that result from feeding infrequent highly palatable, calorie-dense grain meals. A fair percentage of horses will become food urgent to the point of becoming anxious, hyperactive, and/or aggressive at grain feeding time or whenever they anticipate a grain meal. They may develop a stereotypy such as weaving, tongue lollying, or pawing associated with feeding times. They may guard their feed tub or that area of the stall and paddock, or even the person who feeds them. Food-urgent horses in turnout can be dangerously aggressive toward pasturemates. When in a stall they can be aggressive toward caretakers at feeding time, sometimes lunging toward the feed tub or feed scoop, or even turning butt and double barrel kicking to knock the feed bucket out of your hands. For such horses, an all-forage diet usually eliminates the problem.
Finally, nutritional supplements, often marketed specifically for behavioral health, are a very interesting yet frustrating topic for horse owners and managers as well as for equine nutrition and behavior specialists. As is the case for nutritional supplements for humans, so many are available, but for most there is little to none, or widely conflicting, research evidence of their efficacy. In many instances, while it is assumed that feed supplements are safe, there often is no research addressing their safety.
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Reprinted from theHorse.com, Dieting for Disposition
by Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB • Jul 01, 2011 • Article #28126
Or, put safety first by driving defensively.
While driving our pair in Shelburne last week, Hubby and I had a close call. Our horses have 5-7 years driving experience in many different environments, and by nature they are steadier than many carriage horses. And we make a habit of driving defensively. However, like a perfect storm, odd happenstances came together at once to spook our horses during our first drive-out. Hubby was in the cart alone, all I could do was watch from behind as he stood on the brake and reined them in after a couple hundred feet, while the cart got tippy off the edge of the road and it was a really scary moment. All was well however. Amazing how ineffective brakes are when horses are spooked!
The boys– Gilford and Glendale– on a less scary day, passing the Breeding Barn
On Sunday late afternoon after arriving, Hubby and I were walking our pair along the dirt/gravel road approaching the Farm Barn and up ahead three vehicles were blocking the road: a horse trailer coming towards us was stopped in the road, with the trailer driver talking to the driver of a pickup truck stopped in our lane, headed away from us, and a car stopped behind her. We knew the horse trailer was someone coming into the barn, and we knew the pickup driver heading out was Lucia, the lady running the drive this year.
Off to our left was a herd of young cattle, well away from the fence, and one of them, attracted to the stopped traffic, had begun slowly walking towards the stopped vehicles. We still were approaching at a walk, expecting the traffic to clear the way since they were blocking the whole road.
Well, as we got closer ALL the cows started approaching the road, following the leader, and Gilford (our left-hand horse closest to the cattle) started getting worried. At that point we stopped about 20 feet from the vehicles and I got out intending to head up Gilford, who was acting more and more nervous. Hubby called out to the trailer driver to clear the way please, “the cows are coming!” The horse trailer driver had gotten out of his truck and was still talking to Lucia.
The dreaded attack cows
The car behind Lucia (closest to us) was not even part of our GSCA group and people in the back seat were just laughing. By then our carriage was trapped behind the second car. There was no room for us to turn off the roadway to the right, which had a sloped shoulder, and turning to the left would have meant turning towards the cows. Pretty much out of the question by then.
So the horse trailer driver got back in, started up his diesel (which he had turned off) and the engine firing up was more than the boys could handle with the whole herd of cows coming at them– just as the cars started moving and Hubby let the horses start to move they bolted and veered off onto the right shoulder trying to get away from the cows. The shoulder sloped down towards a ditch and a high-tension wire fence which was practically invisible– another horrible thought crossing my mind, in addition to imagining the carriage tipping over, as I watched helpless from behind.
The pickup and car moved away just quickly enough for Hubby to bring the pair back up onto the roadway and get them stopped. There were drag marks in the gravel and the grass from the carriage wheels being locked by Hubby’s braking. Our drive hostess Lucia heard Hubby yelling WHOA and she turned around and came back to be sure we were OK, but she hadn’t even known we were there because her rear view was blocked by the car behind her, whose occupants didn’t have a clue.
HOW SCARY WAS IT?:
I’d say that was the closest we’ve ever come to a potential serious wreck. What scared me was how the carriage started tipping on that slope, and not being able to see how steep it was ahead of the carriage, or if the ditch was deep enough to catch a wheel. There are lots of ditches off the sides of those roads. It would not be a pretty sight if a carriage ever flipped onto its side, that would make any horse go bonkers. It wasn’t so cool to see the carriage wheels locked up dragging in the dirt either, with the horses still bolting and Hubby pulling as hard as he could on the reins.
WHAT WE SHOULD HAVE DONE!:
I think it’s kinda like driving a car, if you’re driving defensively you look ahead and anticipate the worst in your mind, so you are more prepared, and don’t have “expectations” as to what another person is going to do.
In that cow incident, we had plenty of time to stop or turn around when we first saw the situation ahead. We kept walking slowly, thinking the vehicles were going to move away before we got there. We had an opportunity for about a minute, when we saw the single cow walking our way, to either stop and stand or turn and go back. But we didn’t, because we didn’t expect it to turn into a trap, even when Gilford started getting antsy.
We SHOULD NOT have proceeded based on expecting the way to be cleared, or expecting the boys to be OK. It was their first drive-out in a “strange” location, after trailering for nearly three hours; it was a little bit windy and they do sometimes start out jumpy in a new place; and we had already noticed that Gilford was more high-headed (nervous) than usual. In fact we had remarked how that day it was Gilord instead of Glen who was shying at the side of the road, when typically Glendale does that but not Gil. “Usually.”
So the moral is, don’t try to predict what’s going to happen with either animals, people or horses. DO try to read a situation early enough to change it from potentially threatening to safer, or avoid it altogether. In the future we will look further ahead and take more precautions to ward off any potential situation. That one was totally avoidable by us. Yet neither I nor Hubby anticipated it to come to a flash point like that, it seemed to us like there was plenty of time for the vehicles to move out, and with only one cow walking towards us (at first!) it looked more like a training moment for Gilford than the crisis moment that it turned into so quickly.
OTHER SHELBURNE FARM ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS:
We practiced pig passings– we had been warned where the pigs were, and were ready to handle it as a training experience. It was the same area where our boys had spooked briefly last year merely from the smell of the pigs, when they were so far away WE never saw or smelled the pigs and found out later the pig pen was there, back away from the road.
The pigs were on a narrower road but one with low traffic. This year we were always solo when we chose that route (no other carriages.) And Hubby allowed the boys to approach slowly and stop for several moments, and stop a few extra times, to get a good look at the pigs. They were both nervous, and Gil was snorting and blowing a bit. They were never “trapped” but they were not forced into moving forward, Hubby would ask them to walk up once they had relaxed a bit. He was as prepared as possible to prevent them from veering off to the side, and I was ready with a second whip to slap them on the butt to get their attention if they started freaking out, just to get them to go forward if it was needed. (Our driving whip is so floppy it has virtually no influence when they are distracted by something major.)
So they got past the pigs 3 or 4 times from different directions and we lived to tell about it. Luckily a pig didn’t run towards them, the pigs were lazy and often sleeping. And yes, we passed several other herds of cows up there, each day, but mostly they were a little further or a lot further from the road, and the other times there weren’t any attack cows. We passed the dairy barn 3-4 times, which is close to the road and almost always full of cows at their feeding station, in a row facing the road, but no problems there.
The boys would just stand and look at individual cows when there were only a small number, and the cows would stare back. They did jump a little when tom turkeys in a pen near the road all approached their fence, raised their tails and started gobbling at them. That was funny. When the road ahead is clear, the horses perceive that they have an escape route, but typically just speed up a few steps then come back to the reins and slow down.
Covered bridge training in Charlotte
Cows bother them but THIS doesn’t!
WHAT IF WE HAD BEEN DRIVING TANDEM?
We did not drive the pair tandem this year in Shelburne, it was quite windy most of the days and not conducive to a safe tandem experience. Had they been tandem on the cow day, I’d like to think we would NEVER have tried to approach the cows once we saw the one moving towards the road. Glendale as the leader would have been the nervous one, and there is very little control over the leader’s direction if he should get really balky. He has no shafts beside him to keep him lined up straight. Probably we would have turned around, or possibly I would have jumped out to head up Glendale, and we could have stood and waited a good distance away.
Being in a more conservative frame of mind when driving them tandem, we might likely have tried to avoid passing any cattle fields if possible. Last year we drove them tandem the very last day, without incident, when we had a good idea where most of the herds were, and also after they were tired out from three days of driving. I seriously doubt if we would have tried to pass the pigs in a tandem rig, but if we had, I would have been on the ground at Glen’s head, with a lead line on him. Sometime all it takes when they get worried is just for me to walk ahead of them.
Well no one has ever said our horse entertainment is the safest thing in the world… and I don’t think the passengers in that car had any idea it was a dangerous situation. Always an adventure!