Are you setting your horse up for bad behavior? - The Horse Owner's Resource

Are you setting your horse up for bad behavior?

Studies show that confinement, feeding practices and other lifestyle factors can make a horse more likely to develop undesirable behaviors.
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New research from Brazil confirms the connection between confining a horse to a stall without sufficient food to keep him occupied and an increased likelihood of undesirable behaviors.

The study focused on 105 mature Quarter Horses kept in box stalls at three separate training facilities. For at least 30 days before the study began, the horses were confined full-time, leaving their stalls only for one-hour daily training sessions to prepare them for barrel racing, team roping or cutting competitions.

At each facility, the horses received two grain meals daily and were fed hay four times a day. The amount of hay and concentrates given to each horse was determined by his owner or the manager of the facility. The horses were all considered healthy with an average body condition score of 4 (moderately thin on a scale of 1 to 9), which is typical for horses in training.

The researchers analyzed the average diets of all the study horses to determine the approximate amount of dry-matter intake, along with protein, fiber and total energy. They then compared these amounts to recommendations made by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC).

At the same time, each horse’s behavior was documented, with the researchers noting the amount of time spent indulging in normal activities, such as eating or napping, as well as behavior that would be considered undesirable, including head tossing, cribbing, stall walking and acting aggressively toward people or other horses. Each horse’s training regimen was documented, as was his exercising heart rate, so that the intensity of his training could be classified as light, moderate or heavy.

When comparing all of the data, the researchers found no link between different training routines and behavior, but they did find significant association between undesirable behaviors and low dry-matter intake (compared to NRC recommendations) and less time spent eating. The NRC recommendations call for horses in intense work be fed 2.5 percent of their body weight in dry matter daily. The recommendation for horses in moderate activity is 2.25 percent of body weight daily and 2 percent for all other horses. In contrast, the study horses with the highest incidence of undesirable behaviors had an average dry matter intake of less than 1 percent of their body weight daily.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the horses were malnourished but that their meals did not support their mental well-being, explains Leonir Bueno Ribeiro, Doctor in Animal Science, of the State University of Maringá, Paraná, Brazil: “They did not receive sufficient amounts of food, mostly hay. I wouldn’t say that they were hungry, however. This fact caused the horses to get bored [and engage in undesirable behaviors].”

The researchers also found that the larger study horses were more likely to develop undesirable behaviors, a consequence of the failure to calculate feed rations based on each horse’s size, says Ribeiro.

“This was due to their higher nutritional requirements,” he says. “They are larger but they received the same amount of hay as the smaller horses. The practice of egalitarian feeding carried out by the keepers to facilitate feeding management leads to this kind of situation.”

If a horse develops unwanted behaviors, Ribeiro urges owners to consider how management and feeding practices may be contributing to the problem. He recommends, for example, weighing hay meal portions to ensure each horse gets the recommended amount of dry matter for his size and activity level each day.

Reference: “Determinants of undesirable behaviors in American Quarter Horses housed in box stalls,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, July 2019

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