Feeding performance horses

20th August 2014
Beryl Shuttleworth
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At the end of the day, winning has nothing to do with what your horse eats, right? Wrong.

Nutrition can make a difference in how fast your racehorse gallops. It can help your showjumper clear that extra inch. It can help your polo pony have energy up until the last minute of the game. Human athletes have the diets meticulously planned, tweaked, adjusted for optimum performance. Most horses get a bucket of feed and a haynet, exactly the same as the school pony next door. Feeding sport horses is a science.

No two horses are the same

Firstly, I’d like to disagree with this ‘one size fits all’ feeding method that we all tend to use. Even amongst sport horses, there is enormous variation.  Imagine the variation in body size between a huge Warmblood dressage horse and a wiry little Arabian endurance horse. And then there is the variation in exercise regime between the racing sprint and the stop-start nature of polo. As for three day eventing, that just makes the matter even more confusing – how do you feed a horse that must be super fit and brave, but calm enough to do a dressage test on day one? On top of this, there is the natural variation in temperament and personality between individual horses. While one will eat everything in his feed bin, regardless of what it is, another will pick and choose and always leave feed behind.

We need to become more mature in choosing diets for our horses and take these variations into consideration.

The basics of feeding performance horses

Despite the variations discussed above, certain rules do apply across the board:

  • Most of what you feed should be forage – some sort of grass or hay.  At least 7 kg per day for the average horse. The horse’s gut is designed to eat this way. In fact, my suggestion is to supply an unlimited source of grass or hay day and night. This provides the high levels of fibre which help to keep your horse healthy.
  • Concentrates – this feed provides far more DE (digestible energy) per mouthful than forage. Between 1 and 6kg per day should be fed, depending on the horse’s exercise intensity, temperament and condition.
  • Small meals (more often) are much better than large meals.  Large meals can lead to undigested starches and sugars entering the hindgut, where they can upset the pH balance leading to a reduction in the number of beneficial bacteria, which can cause more serious consequences such as colic and laminitis. As a rule of thumb no more than 2kg of concentrate feeds should be fed per meal.

Try to find a concentrated food with little or no molasses – too much sugar, as for humans, is never a good thing. Sugar is a fast-release energy, and can result in hot and unmanageable horses. Even in hard working horses, fat provides a more sustainable, slow-releasing source of energy.  Slow release forms of energy are complex carbohydrates, sugar beet, oil and fibre. They increase your horse’s stamina and are also good for horses who start out well, but fade after a bit of work.

Ulcers are very, very common in sport horses, especially thoroughbreds. In this case, ad lib forage is even more important. 24 hour turnout is preferable and probiotics can be useful.

Can supplements help performance horses?

Sometimes, depending on the diet, exercise, etc. it might be necessary to top up the diet using a supplement. In this regard, I urge you to observe your individual horse. Is he coping with his work load? Does he feel lazy and lethargic? Or hot and fizzy? Are there problems, such as bad feet or ulcers? Is there a history of laminitis?

I guess what I am really trying to say is that there is no substitute for good observation. Watch your horse – how he or she behaves when ridden and when at ease.  Get to really know him – so that when there is a problem, and his behaviour changes, you realise immediately. Adjust the feed and supplementation accordingly.

When you have a horse who is fed correctly, believe me, your chances of winning that ribbon are much, much larger.

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