Updated: Jul 25
The world is filled with these magnificent lovely creatures, will and mild mannered. Yet, sometimes, even the calmest of horses can exhibit unexpected spooky behavior, leaving owners and riders puzzled and in fear. While various factors can contribute to such behavior, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the role of nutrition.
This post aims to shed light on how the equine diet, specifically the presence of excessive energy, imbalanced electrolytes, and micronutrient deficiencies, can impact a horse's behavior and potentially lead to spooky episodes. We can, here at Surefire Horsemanship, say definitely from experience that equine nutrition is partially related to horses' spooking in many more cases than it isn't.
The Energy Dilemma: Horses are natural athletes, but an excess of energy in their diet can result in behavior changes that manifest as spookiness. One of the main culprits is starch, a carbohydrate found in grains such as corn, barley, and oats, NOT oils and fats. When horses consume large amounts of starch-rich feeds, the excess energy can be challenging for them to utilize effectively. This can lead to heightened excitability, restlessness, and unpredictable behavior, making the horse more prone to spooking. Not only that, the way the starch is broken down in the handout actually causes the horse to be in distress and uncomfortable. It truly isn't designed to handle a lot of starch no matter a horse's performance level.
Electrolyte Imbalances and Behavior: Electrolytes play a crucial role in maintaining proper nerve and muscle function in horses. When electrolyte levels become imbalanced, it can disrupt the horse's overall well-being and behavior. Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride, calcium, magnesium, and even sugar for most horses, help regulate nerve impulses, muscle contractions, and hydration. A deficiency or excess of these electrolytes can alter the horse's behavior and increase the likelihood of spooky episodes. Most horses in the midwest United States get plenty of potassium, and definitely plenty of starch, but often lack the calcium or magnesium or both.
Inadequate intake of electrolytes, such as sodium and calcium, can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, and nervousness. On the other hand, an excessive intake of electrolytes can create imbalances, causing hyperactivity, muscle twitching, and increased sensitivity, and even severe tying up and major poll sensitivity. I call it "seeing ghost" while tied. These behaviors can contribute to a horse's tendency to spook and become more reactive to its environment. Diet goes hand in hand with training and you want to stop these habits before they start.
The Micronutrient Maze: While macronutrients like carbohydrates and proteins often take the spotlight, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals play equally vital roles in a horse's overall health and behavior. A deficiency or imbalance in these micronutrients can impact the horse's nervous system, leading to behavioral changes.
For instance, deficiencies in B vitamins, such as thiamine (B1), can result in nervousness, irritability, and a heightened startle response. Similarly, a shortage of magnesium, or calcium can cause muscle tension and anxiety in horses, increasing their susceptibility to spooky behavior. Additionally, imbalances in essential minerals like zinc and copper can impact a horse's brain function and emotional stability, coat health and color, and hoof growth, potentially leading to behavior and long term health changes. Something you almost NEVER need more of in the midwest (especially here in Ohio) is Iron, please avoid iron supplements or feed with excessive iron added. This can cause insulin resistance and coat bleaching, and potentially Cushings later in life.
Balancing the Equine Diet: Achieving a well-balanced equine diet is key to maintaining optimal behavior and minimizing spooky episodes. Here are some essential guidelines:
Feed High-Fiber Forage: Ensure the horse's diet includes ample high-quality forage, such as grass hay and well managed and monitored pasture, as it promotes a healthy digestive system and provides a steady release of energy. Too much grass is not a good thing, or natural to horses believe it or not. For another blog...
Limit Starch Intake: Reduce the amount of starch-rich grains, treats, high sugar grasses and concentrates in the horse's diet. Opt for low-starch feeds or consider alternative energy sources like fat and fiber. Most of our diet here is fiber, fat, then protein and our horses look fantastic. We call it horse keto jokingly. But you have to still balance the diet and give and adjustment period.
Electrolyte Balance: Provide a balanced electrolyte supplement when necessary, especially during intense exercise or hot weather, to replenish electrolyte losses and maintain proper hydration. Please be careful to NOT add a supplement with sugar or glucose. Stick to sugar free like Apple A Day.
Micronutrient-Rich Feed: Consult with an equine nutritionist to evaluate your horse's diet and ensure it includes an appropriate balance of vitamins and minerals. If deficiencies are identified, targeted supplements can be added. Especially for those with foals and chronic conditions.
Understanding the connection between equine diet and spooky behavior is crucial for horse owners and riders. By recognizing the potential impacts of excessive energy, electrolyte imbalances, and micronutrient deficiencies, we can make informed decisions about feeding and nutrition to promote optimal behavior and enhance the overall well-being of our equine partners.
Remember, each horse is unique, and it may take some trial and error to find the ideal diet that suits your horse's specific needs. Always consult with an equine nutrition professional or vet trained in nutrition for personalized guidance and recommendations, NOT the local feed mill.
As always-this is generic advice, talk to your vet and do blood panels before drastic diet changes.
Harris, P. (2012). Feeding the Spooky Horse. The Horse. Retrieved from https://thehorse.com/17343/feeding-the-spooky-horse/
NRC. (2007). Nutrient Requirements of Horses (6th ed.). National Academies Press.
Pagan, J. (2018). Magnesium: Is It Magic? The Horse. Retrieved from https://thehorse.com/159342/magnesium-is-it-magic/
Pagan, J. (2014). Should You Be Feeding Electrolytes? The Horse. Retrieved from https://thehorse.com/119329/should-you-be-feeding-electrolytes/
Smith, S. (2013). Diet and Horse Behavior. University of Illinois Extension. Retrieved from https://extension.illinois.edu/horse/diet-and-horse-behavior