Back in the days when I was instructing full time, I used to think ‘training’ could solve almost all issues.
Then I realised you couldn’t train a horse effectively if it was feeling pain in it’s feet, from poor saddle fit or from the bit, or any other kind of physical pain for that matter. And then I discovered another problem that caused negative behaviour - chronic mineral imbalance.
I have come to realise that even more issues are the result of the grass we allow our horses to eat, combined with imbalances or lack of certain minerals. Or the massive imbalance that rapidly growing grass can cause in Autumn and Spring, it has been widely reconised in cattle as grass tetany but until recently it has not been recognised or proven in horses.
So many people struggle with horses that are over-excitable, nervous, jumpy, suffer separation anxiety, have a sour attitude, can’t move forward, and are generally uncontrollable, and think that better training will fix the horse.
Sure, some horses can be ‘trained into submission’ with various techniques but that just causes the horse to shut down eventually – it doesn’t solve the cause of the problem.
Are these behavioural issues? What has changed in the horse’s life?
First, its best to check that pain isn’t causing a problem, then look at any changes made to their diet:
1/ Have they moved to a new paddock
2/ Is the grass short and under stress?
3/ Been fed something different such as ryegrass or clover hay?
4/ Their living situation, have they been removed from the herd, or lost a herd member?
5/ Has a particular grass such as Rye Grass, Clover, Paspalum, Couch Grass, Phalaris (Blue Canary grass), Cat’s ear flat weed (looks like dandelion), Tall Fescue in reasonable amounts in the paddock?
6/ Has a weed increased, such as Cape weed, Patersons cures, St John’s Wart, Fire weed, Poison buttercup, or Deadly night shade?
7/ Have you changed or cut out the vitamin and mineral supplement you feed in the past 2-3 months?
8/ Or have you made changes to the equipment you use (new saddle, bridle, pad, girth etc?).
Any or all of these can affect a horse’s behaviour.
So if you’ve changed your horse’s diet, then that could be the cause – especially if you’ve moved them to a fresh pasture, and especially if that pasture has grass that is toxic.
So what is toxic grass?
Any grass under stress or climatic conditions such as those of early spring and autumn, especially in drought-breaking rains or cool, cloudy, wet weather, including frosts, is subject to acute spikes of potassium and nitrate at the same time becoming low in sodium. This is exacerbated by nitrogenous fertilisers.
The potassium nitrate ingested is highly toxic and the body eliminates it by latching on to calcium and magnesium so is excreted with them. Hence the necessity to feed adequate calcium/magnesium and sodium while not adding to the potassium load with lucerne/molasses, many herbs/garlic/high protein feeds/supplements containing potassium.
Grass that is too high in sugars (NSC’s – Non Structural Carbohydrates) such as rye grass, or has oxalates (binds up calcium) such as Kikuyu, Setaria, Buffel, Green Panic, Pangola, Para Grass, Guinea Grass, Signal Grass and Purple Pigeon grass, or has mycotoxins that are produced by endophytes in grasses such as rye and paspalum, or has moulds/pollens or is drought stressed, is toxic.
It’s also a good idea to find out from your local Department of Primary Industries what weeds are prevalent in your area that could be dangerous to horses.
Grass is a huge topic and I recommend you start by reading the article further down this page – ‘Why do I need to know about grass’ then, Jenny Patersons’ web site Calm Healthy Horses. It has a huge amount of information on the physical and behavioural issues that come from grazing the wrong types of grasses for horses.
In the past week I’ve had two people contact me about their geldings behaving like stallions and others noticing their horses have ‘changed’ and are becoming pushy and not listening.
Clover is implicated here because it contains phyto-estrogens that upset hormones and also contains pigments that lead to photosensitivity which looks like mud fever (greasy heel) and sunburn.
The best way to figure out if grass is implicated in behavioural issues is to remove the horse from the grass, feed non-rye/clover/paspalum grass hay and supplements to assist with correcting mineral imbalances that can exaggerate the behaviour.
Here are some wonderful success stories of horses and ponies who have overcome major behavioural and physical problems by changing their diet.
And here’s how magnesium supplementation helped Missy.
“I started using Alleviate on my gelding in autumn and found he was not as stressed about leaving his mare behind when I took him for a ride. I was so happy with Alleviate, I decided to start my mare (Missy – pictured here) on it. She has had a great fear of being tied up from previous negative experiences, and as soon as we would approach the tie up rail in the past she was tense and stressed out and would run backwards.
Amazingly, after three weeks on Alleviate I am now able to drape the rope over the rail and brush her without any anxiety at all. I would recommend it to anyone.”
Vanessa Macdonald, Tas.
Some advice from Lucy Prior - Something else we are about to add to our Provide It Plan is feeding your horses their hay first before they have a hard feed.
By giving the horses 30 – 60 minutes of hay first before they eat their hard feed it slows down the digestion of the nutrition in the hard feed and helps increase the absorption rate. This is particularly important for horses kept on a track or dry lot as their stomachs won’t have as much in them, particularly in the morning they will be almost empty.
Hard food will pass through an empty stomach much quicker, possibly not allowing as much nutrition to be absorbed. I have noticed that the tox-defy also seems to be working more efficiently by feeding some hay first before the hard food.
It may take a couple of days for your horses to get used to the reversed feeding, mine looked at me in disgust for the first couple of days wondering where their hard feed was.
Another tip which I’m sure most of you are already aware of is to introduce your horses slowly from free grazing on grass to a track or large bare yard.
If you change your horses diet drastically it can kill off a large amount of the flora (good bacteria) in the hind gut that breaks down the fiber. If this happens your horse may go off their feed and the manure will go very dry. Try giving them a heaped table spoon (or a Vit & Min scoop) full of Phsyillium Husk night and morning this will help regulate the digestive system.
The Natural Horse World Store now stocks Magnesium chloride and a range of herbal products to help.