The reason this post isn’t called ‘Feeding for calmness’ is because there is a great deal more to keeping your horse calm than feeding.
There are, however, certain feeding regimes that can cause excess exuberance or reactivity in your horse, and certain supplements that might help calm them down. But these will be discussed after the most important factors…
Horses are prey animals who have evolved to be reactive to sounds, sights and feeling trapped, and they have evolved to walk for many miles daily whilst grazing and visiting watering points. It is a credit to their adaptability that our horses can settle living in stables and being ridden or handled in restrictive ways.
Horses are commonly restricted in the way we handle or ride them, often unintentionally. Putting more thought into getting to the horse’s mind rather than just their body, giving them more time to gain confidence, understanding how release is a reward, and understanding things from their point of view are the most effective ways to help them to be calmer. Some horses find new environments unsettling and it can take a great deal of patience to keep exposing them in a gradual way so that they become more confident (and they will, given time, patience and consistent handling and riding).
Turning your horse out as much as possible is the next strategy to promote calmness. A stable for a horse is the equivalent of an en-suite bathroom to a human, and if you were shut in your en-suite bathroom for 23 hours with little to do, you’d probably want to zoom around when you were let out. Horses are ‘hard wired’ to move and allowing them sufficient daily mileage – either at pasture ridden – will have a calming effect.
Then comes the feeding. Concentrate feed is not necessary unless a horse is unable to maintain weight and condition on forage alone. Starchy grain-based feeds can cause excess exuberance in some horses, who are susceptible to the starch. This is not a reaction to the energy in the feed, but the starch, and research has shown that high starch diets can increase reactivity and limit learning ability. Look for high digestible fibre, low starch feeds for horses in work or who need more condition, and use the ‘safe’ energy in vegetable oil.
Haylage and alfalfa and other feeds fed more often in the winter month often get blamed for causing excitability, but it’s more likely to be the restriction from stabling that is to blame. Stabling horses for longer periods usually makes them more forward going when ridden.
Calming supplements are not currently evidence based, and the huge variety available – and the huge variety of ingredients used – indicates that not all work on all horses. Herbal calmatives such as those containing valerian are probably the most consistent, although they are not permitted in competition.
Some horses are naturally forward going and will get more fizzy if they are constantly held back. Some horses are scared and will get more fizzy (frightened) if they are misunderstood. Try to assess your horse’s character and look at life from their point of view. Look at your own skill level; your feel and timing and your own confidence. Doing so will help you to understand why your horse is not as calm as you would like, and give you a better idea of how to help them become calmer, in a sustained and reliable way.