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Feeding for Stress

By Dr Tom Shurlock of British Horse Feeds

There has been a lot of discussion on the role of stress in humans – how it is a survival trait and, when channelled, becomes a positive force – and we tend to think of it as our ability to cope, or not, with the pressures of life.

The same is true for the horse although stress may mean different things to him. Basically, any action that takes a horse out of its behavioural comfort zone is stress.
The horse is a herd animal; constant ranging, grazing and social interaction is its normal environment in the wild. Apart from the occasional predator attack or breeding behaviour (both stressful in themselves), the wild horse’s life revolves around these activities, and any situation that compromises this behaviour is stressful.

That means situations we do not even consider. Stabling for example can be stressful – weaving and cribbing are both examples of stress behaviour – as can interruptions in feeding, transport, unfamiliar surroundings, isolation and, most importantly, extended exercise. But there is another type of stress; endogenous stress. This encompasses includes oxidative stress, rapid metabolic changes and build-up of endotoxins, pulmonary haemorrhaging, hyperthermia and physical damage. On top of this, different activities may encompass a combination of the above, plus a few more! But, by understanding the problems that may occur, the nutritionist can help.

So, how do you go about feeding a horse to minimise stress?

This needs to be approached on two levels. Firstly, we need to provide a feeding regime that supports the horse’s normal behavioural cues. And the single most important factor is the constant supply of forage. Ranging behaviour encourages the horse’s trickle feeding and a constant supply supports this. However, ranging also involves investigating and sampling, so the supply of a secondary fibre source, especially as discreet meals, helps fulfil this role. By keeping to these two points, most behavioural stress cues can be avoided or at least reduced. Supplying feed constantly reinforces calm behaviour although, obviously, the stress of exercise cannot be treated the same way.

Exercise creates endogenous stress. The metabolic release of oxidative factors, endotoxins and disruption of nutrient intake all act as stress factors. Nutrient supply to replace lost energy, electrolytes and regenerate muscle (muscular activity initiates protein breakdown), and so the quality of the feed needs to be considered, as well as the quantity.

Super fibres can help support both exogenous and endogenous stress mediation. Not only can they provide ranging enrichment, but the constant provision of slow release energy modulates energy use and avoids metabolic shifts to more oxidative processes. In particular, a product like Fibre-Beet, with a good level of quality protein and micronutrients will help sustain recovery processes after exercise. The fermentation patterns maintain normal gut function, modulating endotoxin related stress. Specific fibre types, such as glucans and pectins (both of which are found in Fibre-Beet), have roles in supporting immunomodulation and maintaining gut mucoid production, both of which are subject to endogenous stress suppression.

By feeding a good quality forage and, importantly, having it continually available so allowing as close to normal grazing behaviour, and supplementing with a super fibre, such as Fibre-Beet (again supports Ranging), many stress factors can be reduced. In situations where withdrawal of feed is unavoidable, a super fibre before and immediately after the activity will help bridge the gap, and act as an endogenous protectant. Supplementing with good quality balancers/hard feeds, rich in quality nutrients and antioxidants can complete the provision of anti-stress factors.

Feeding as closely as possible to the natural behaviour of the horse, is the best way to help reduce stress in the horse.