In Monday Myths we debunk common misconceptions about a range of topics regarding equine digestive health and care. These are real statements made by real horse people. Have a question or topic you would like to see covered? Submit your idea here.
Statement: My horse needs more training. She doesn’t like to move forward, and is grumpy and generally difficult when we ride.
It’s not uncommon to see horses grumpy with their work under saddle. They may pin their ears and gnash their teeth. They may refuse to respond to leg aids. They may be reluctant to move out or perform lateral work. They may kick out or buck when asked to move in a certain way.
There are many reasons a horse may be difficult and unwilling under saddle. Lack of or poor training often tops this list. So do poor riding and ill-fitting tack. Some attribute behavior issues to a horse with a naturally bad personality or just “being bad.”
However, many riders don’t stop to consider that when horses behave badly, it may be their way of signaling that they are physically uncomfortable or incapable of doing their best.
When Behavior May Be Related to Digestive Health
We all know how it feels to have to perform work when we aren’t feeling our best. Whether it’s from pain, illness, hunger, or other deficiencies we just aren’t capable of our very best – and may even get grouchy about it. Why would our horses be any different?
Starch in Concentrates May Cause Sugar Highs and Lows
Performance horses have higher energy requirements which often lead us to add a grain or other starchy concentrated feeds to their diet. Concentrate meals move through the foregut in a matter of hours, where starches and other simpler carbohydrates are broken down in the stomach and small intestine, and absorbed through the wall of the small intestine.
The influx of concentrates into the system in a short amount of time can cause a “sugar high”, followed by the subsequent crash. The body produces insulin in response to the influx of sugar, and this insulin then creates the crash. These sugar highs and lows can have a negative impact on a horse’s attitude. Sugar imbalances may cause horses to be high-strung and unpredictable or lazy and lethargic, both of which can be expressed through resistant behaviors.
Feeding Concentrate Meals Hard on the Hindgut
In most barns, concentrates are fed only two or three times a day. Often, this is too large a volume of grain feed for the horse to digest and absorb properly in the foregut. That means undigested sugars and starches can reach the hindgut, where they are fermented by the bacteria there to produce high levels of lactic acid. This can lead to hindgut acidosis, and a whole array of potential hindgut health problems, that can leave a horse off its game, to say the least.
Digestive Discomfort Displayed in Resistant Behaviors
As we discussed in last week’s Monday Myth, low-grade digestive issues may be much more common in horses than you think. Some horses may be stoic when faced with pain, and others may be in the early stages of digestive distress. As a result, these horses may display their discomfort in their behavior rather than through the typical clinical, physical symptoms.
We’ve heard from multiple veterinarians who’ve noticed a relationship between performance issues and resistance and digestive health in their clients’ horses. By taking measures to support hindgut health in these horses, many have shown marked improvement.
A Healthy Horse is a Happy Horse
A horse whose digestive tract is healthy and functioning properly won’t be in pain (at least not in the gut) and will also be more capable of receiving nutrition and energy properly from his food. Address digestive health and management in the list of possible causes of resistant behaviors, and you may see improvements in your horse’s willingness to perform under saddle.
Or, if you and your veterinarian evaluate your horse’s digestive system and find it healthy, you’ve checked one potential cause off the list and can pursue other reasons for resistance.
Resistance under saddle is a training issue = maybe, maybe not. Poor behavior may be related to training, riding, tack, or lameness issues. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the slightest issue in the equine hindgut may have the ability to negatively impact behavior and performance.