Box Issues Tied to Nutrition
Dr. Jyme Nichols
Director of Nutrition, Bluebonnet Feeds
No matter what number roper you are, or what caliber horse you ride, fine tuning your horse’s nutrition program increases your chance of success. Have you ever felt a sugar high from eating a candy bar and drinking an energy drink? Have you ever gotten “butterflies” in your stomach before you roped because you were excited, nervous or anxious? Have you ever dealt with ulcers, indigestion, or irritable bowel syndrome? These are all things horses deal with as well; and there are certain nutritional adjustments you can make to help your horse cope, thereby improving your chance at a winning run.
Horses are best suited to continuous grazing of forage. However, our modern lifestyle has forced most horses into stalls and dry lots with once or twice per day feeding regimens that often leave a horse without food for hours at a time. In addition, many horses are given “grain” in the form of oats or a sweet feed. Molasses and cereal grains such as corn, oats, wheat, barley, and milo contain high levels of sugar and starch. Think of them as the equivalent of a candy bar and energy drink. They initiate a quick release of glucose into the blood stream which results in excitability. It’s interesting how many horses with box issues are being fed oats or sweet feed mixes, and most people don’t realize this kind of diet is compounding the problem.
There is no substitute for good horsemanship and wet blankets, but I see a lot of people try to starve a horse down to get that edge off instead of feeding them in a way that supports the desired outcome. If you want a horse to be more levelheaded, you need to allow them to eat the way they are designed. For starters, continuous eating of forage in small amounts throughout the day. For those who don’t have pasture access, slow feeder hay nets and grass hay are all you need. Horses have to work to get the hay out of the small holes so it takes them longer to eat the same amount of hay. Grass hay is good because it has a lower energy content than alfalfa. Just make sure you are feeding around 2% of your horse’s body weight (a 1200 lb horse should eat 24 lb of hay per day).
After providing the right amount of forage, the only thing else your horse needs is a diet balancer to provide minerals and vitamins that all hay and pasture lacks. If your horse is a hard keeper, you should skip the diet balancer and lean instead on a fully fortified feed that is low in starch and sugar but high in “cool energy” calories from fat (such as Intensify Omega Force).
Another thing that can cause a horse to be overly-sensitive in the box is digestive distress. This can take the form of ulcers in the stomach, failure of intestinal tight junctions (leaky gut), or dysbiosis (imbalance of good bacteria in the hind gut). All three of these things can be associated with intestinal inflammation and pain. Digestive ailments like these are commonly caused by stress from practicing and hauling, being stalled, going for several hours without anything to eat, long-term use of Bute® and Banamine®, heat stress, and high starch diets.
Sometimes people will make an overly anxious horse stand tied all day long without anything to eat before they practice in the evening. Practicing on an empty stomach can set a horse up for digestive problems which cause him pain, and most horses express pain by being resistant or defiant to pressure. The box can become a high pressure area for a horse because he anticipates the pain he is going to feel in his digestive tract when asked to leave the box, stop hard, or take a hit from the steer or calf.
The digestive tract hangs freely in the horse’s abdomen, so quick starts and stops can cause already painful or inflamed intestines to collide with other organs and create even more pain. Not to mention, when a horse is on an empty stomach, gastric acid has free rein to slosh around and splash up onto the non-protected portion of the stomach and cause gastric ulcers. After all of this, the horse quickly begins to associate the box and roping with pain. At first they may just act a little fidgety or start to squat in the corner, but over time if the digestive issues are left to progress, the horse will become worse and worse until he outright refuses to back in the corner or starts rearing up.
So, what can you do to help prevent digestive distress in your horse? First, make forage the largest part of the horse’s diet and make every effort to allow him to eat continuously in small amounts throughout the day. For easy keepers and excitable horses, feed grass hay. For harder keepers, seniors, and “duller” horses add a little alfalfa to the mix. Mega-dose probiotics and prebiotics (i.e. ADR Powder) may help support the hind gut by keeping the populations of good bacteria in balance. This is helpful for horses that get loose stools when they travel, go off feed, or are given drugs such as UlcerGard®, Equioxx®, Bute®, and Banamine®. Plasma (i.e. LIFELINE®+ Equine), omeprazole, and seaweed derived calcium have all both been shown through research to be beneficial in preventing gastric ulcer formation. Butyric acid, zinc, and plasma may also play a critical role in supporting normal tight junction function which is essential for preventing leaky gut syndrome.
Nutritional technologies such as probiotics, prebiotics, plasma, butyric acid, and seaweed derived calcium can be found in Equilene® Pro Care, a new low-starch, beet pulp based feed, from Bluebonnet Feeds. In addition, the Intensify® family by Bluebonnet Feeds provides advanced nutritional support for horses with specific needs such as horses with sugar sensitivities or metabolic concerns, broodmares and growing horses, senior horses, horses requiring “cool energy” diets, and those in need of more condensed feeding rates.
Need help choosing the right feed? Visit the Bluebonnet Feeds website for a free nutrition consult.
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