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  • Q:

    Pal is an 8-year-old, 14.3-hand (150-cm) Dales Pony that weighs about 1,100 lb (500 kg). He’s moderately fleshy, so he’s probably a 6 on the familiar 1-9 body condition scorecard. We do all sorts of things together: trail-riding, eventing, and some dressage. Pal’s current diet includes a half scoop of a low-starch, coconut-based feed, a scoop of beet pulp, a half scoop of alfalfa pellets, some chaff, and first-cut hay (or grazing depending on the season). He also receives natural vitamin E, selenium, and kelp. In the past, he has been a calm and confident companion, but lately he’s become a bit of a fire-breathing dragon, turning anxious in company, spooking on trails, executing impromptu caprioles, and bolting occasionally. I try to exercise him a good bit. Even in the winter I ride him on the trail 6-10 miles (10-16 km) when I can. I wonder if this new reactivity is being caused by a deficiency or excess of a nutrient, maybe calcium? Can you help?

  • A:

    Changes in behavior are sometimes difficult to sort out. A diet evaluation can certainly determine if Pal is receiving too little or too much of any dietary component.

    The amounts and types of feedstuffs listed in your question provide macrominerals, like calcium and magnesium, at appropriate amounts. It is unlikely that Pal’s sudden change in behavior is due to a dietary deficiency or oversupplementation of these specific nutrients.

    The ration does not, however, include a source of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which leaves Pal’s diet short on trace minerals such as selenium, copper, and zinc. Because he is maintaining his weight and usually his energy for work is ideal, adding a ration balancer (1-2 lb or 0.5-1 kg/day) or a concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement, like Micro-Max (2-4 oz/day) or Gold Pellet in Australia, will provide the extra nutrients needed to balance his diet. Altering his diet to include a vitamin and mineral product is a great starting point to ensure Pal is receiving complete nutrition and helps rule out diet as a cause of undesirable behavior.

    The next step is to consider digestive discomfort as a cause for behavioral changes. Horses can show signs of digestive discomfort or pain in many different ways and identifying the root of the problem can be challenging. Consultation with your veterinarian to assess your horse’s overall health is recommended, as even well-managed horses receiving free-choice forage and low-grain diets can be susceptible to digestive problems such as gastric ulcers, colitis, and subclinical hindgut acidosis.

    For these horses, supplementation with a digestive buffer such as RiteTrac can help alleviate digestive discomfort both in the foregut (stomach) and hindgut (cecum and colon). Available in the U.S. and certain other countries, RiteTrac is a unique digestive-health supplement, as it contains a time-released hindgut buffer, EquiShure, which ensures the delivery of the buffer to the hindgut. Horse owners in Australia can utilize these products.

    In addition to a gastrointestinal checkup, including a thorough inspection of Pal’s teeth, the veterinarian might perform a soundness evaluation to pinpoint any subtle lameness that might be causing Pal anxiety.

    Finally, any recent environmental, routine, or equipment changes should be evaluated thoughtfully to determine if they might be affecting his behavior and shaking his confidence.

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