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Feeding Fat for a Calmer HorseBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 28, 2012

Horse owners have been asking the same question for centuries: How do you feed a horse so that he has plenty of energy for whatever you want him to do, without producing an animal that is too active, nervous, or spooky to ride? Years back, the problem of too much energy was blamed on too much feed. If the rider couldn’t control a horse that was “feeling his oats,” the experience usually wasn’t pleasant and might even have been dangerous.

With a better understanding of equine nutrition, horse owners now know that the problem is just as likely to be the kind, rather than the amount, of feed. Traditional sweet feeds, with their component of carbohydrate-rich grains, seem to contribute to overly energetic behavior in some horses. Choosing a feed that is formulated to provide more energy from fat and less from the carbohydrate portion of the diet has been suggested as a way of producing “cool” energy in horses that seem to react to sugar-laden feeds.

The idea sounds good, but does it actually work? Research conducted at Virginia Polytechnic Institute indicated that horses fed a high-fat diet were less reactive to pressure, loud noises, and sudden visual stimuli than horses on more traditional high-carbohydrate diets. This conclusion from a controlled study does indicate that a difference in intake of fat and carbohydrate may make a difference in the way horses act in situations that could be expected to provoke nervous reactions.

So, is a high-fat, low-starch diet the answer to equine behavior problems in every case? Some horse owners swear by the results of this dietary adjustment, while others say they can’t tell any difference in their horses’ behavior regardless of feed type.

While feed formulation may influence the behavior of some horses, it can’t be expected to completely override the effects of training (or lack thereof), basic temperament, rider’s skill level, bit and saddle choices, type of work the horse is asked to do, riding style of the horse’s previous owners, weather, hours of stall time, and miscellaneous distractions like stray dogs and deer that suddenly leap across a quiet trail. What feeding fat can do for many horses is to smooth out or reduce nervous behavior, allowing the horse to pay attention to the rider’s aids rather than whatever else is going on around him.

Not sure if the change will help your horse? Give it a try and find out! Just remember to allow the horse’s digestive system to adapt to changes in feed, making modifications gradually over a period of 7 to 10 days or longer.