This Forageplus article discusses the best way to feed a performance horse. Horses in moderate to heavy work, competing in sports such as endurance, eventing or racing need food that will supply good levels of energy to support a healthy weight, but in many ways, this is the easy bit.
The hard part, when feeding a hard-working, performance horse, is getting the correct level of minerals, vitamins, and protein to provide the chemistry to fuel repeated high-level athletic performance and support the best health and soundness.
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What do I need to know about feeding a performance horse?
Some of your questions about how to feed a hard-working, performance horse might be:
- Is a performance horse different from a wild horse?
- When is a horse working at a performance level?
- What are the best feeds for feeding a performance horse working at a moderate to heavy workload?
- How can you ensure a truly balanced diet?
- Should you feed a performance horse cereals?
- Can you feed a high-fibre, low-sugar and starch diet to a performance horse?
- Will you get a better performance horse if you feed a high-fat diet?
- What kind of provision should you make to ensure your performance horse has access to the right electrolytes?
In this article we seek to discuss our thoughts on these questions and more so that you can take control over the feeding decisions needed to keep your performance horse healthy and sound for many years.
Is a performance horse different to their wild ancestors?
Today’s hard-working performance horses lead lives that are very different from their wild ancestors, but at all times, no matter what a horse is used for we should remember that our domestic horses are physiologically very similar to their wild ancestors.
Mentally, they still thrive when in the company of other horses, needing social interaction to feel secure, happy and safe.
The horse’s digestive tract evolved to secrete acid and bile 24 hours a day because the horse as a prey animal developed to eat in an almost continuous grazing pattern rather than the infrequent meals of a predator.
Domestic horses still have a physical need to browse and chew almost continuously. This is on the horse’s hard drive because, like their wild ancestors, they have a digestive tract where more than 50% of the volume is given over to the fermentation of forages. For today’s domestic horse forage means grass, hay or haylage.
Although today’s performance horses lead lives that are very different from their wild ancestors they are still horses. They still have the same needs as horses through the ages, so when feeding them that is the place we must start, even though they might undertake very different activities.
Is my horse working at performance horse level?
The table below will help you decide if your horse is in moderate and above work.
A horse working at this level would be classed as a performance horse where athletic demands mean that great attention should be paid to each nutritional component of the daily diet.
Figures are from Nutrient Requirements of Horses Sixth Revised Edition (2007)
|Category||Mean Heart Rate||Description|
|Light||80 beats/minute||1 to 3 hours/week; 40% walk, 50% trot, 105 canter|
|Moderate||90 beats/minute||3 to 5 hours/week; 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% low jumping or other skill work|
|Heavy||110 beats/minute||4 to 5 hours/week: 20% walk, 50% trot, 15% canter, 15% gallop, jumping or other skill work|
What feed should be fed the most to a performance horse?
An appropriate feeding program for any horse, takes into consideration the horse’s digestive anatomy and physiology. The primary diet should have a foundation in forage, regardless of whether the horse is a retired pasture ornament or an Olympic-level eventer.
Hard-working horses may need more calories in their diet than can be met from grass or hay alone; as a result, the temptation is to feed increasingly high levels of calorie-dense feeds.
The focus of the daily feed can easily become these supplemental energy sources, with less and less attention paid to the daily amounts coming from hay, haylage or grass and the need for maintenance of a high fibre level moving through the digestive system.
Forage, the grass or hay the horse eats, is the first food to consider and that should always form the greatest proportion of the diet. The temptation of course with a horse in moderate to heavy exercise is to get more and more focused on the bagged food thinking that calories and what that provides are more important.
A common misconception is that hay and grass are just ‘fibre’ or ‘roughage’, a sort of filler that your horse needs, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Hay, haylage or grass contains large amounts of nutrients and makes up the bulk of the protein, minerals and vitamins a performance horse eats each day.
If the level of forage is cut drastically not only does the fibre content drop, and jeopardize digestive health, but so do all the nutrients. Replacing these lost nutrients becomes hard, so cutting grass, hay and haylage too much and relying on hard feed in the form of compound feed is likely to shoot you in the hoof!
How can you ensure a truly balanced diet for a performance horse?
Whenever possible mineral and nutritional levels of hay or haylage should be tested, especially when several months of hay are purchased at one time. This will enable calculations to be based on the protein, minerals and energy levels of the greatest proportion of the diet.
Compared with the cost of hay or haylage, testing is a very modest investment for information about the calorie, protein, carbohydrate fractions, and macro and trace mineral content.
When carrying out an analysis of forage make sure that the report analysis provides horse-based information. When an analysis is not possible then, feeding a forage-focused horse feed supplement in the daily bucket feed is the next best option.
Once the hay or haylage is selected nutrients not present in the hay in adequate amounts need to be provided by some additional means.
If the horse can maintain condition solely on hay, then a forage-focused supplement providing magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, chloride, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, lysine, methionine and vitamin E (if no spring and summer grass) should be added to provide necessary minerals, vitamins and limiting amino acids. For best success analysis of hay or haylage will enable a check to be made that mineral levels are at optimum.
The benefit of balancing feed to the grass, hay or haylage is that it will make sure that minerals like calcium, manganese and iron are not over-supplemented. These are commonly at adequate or high levels in the forage we test from all around the UK and Europe even for performance horses.
Should I include cereals in a performance horse diet?
The answer to this depends on the type of horse; poor doer or good doer, the amount of exercise and the duration of this exercise.
Cereals can provide a valuable source of concentrated calories. This can be important in a horse which is not able to consume the volume of a lower-calorie food to maintain body weight and muscle mass.
Is a high-fibre, low-sugar diet always best for a performance horse?
The digestive system of the horse means that all performance horses need at least 1.5% of their body weight as forage or an additional fibre-rich feed such as beet pulp. Managing this is extremely important to maintain digestive health.
However, at the same time, a balance needs to be met to supply enough calories, protein and carbohydrates to support high-intensity athletic and energetic work. Balancing the need for these higher energy feeds at the same time as keeping enough fibre in the diet is important, especially with poor-doer-type horses.
A good doer, performance horse will often do extremely well on a forage-based diet with a small feed to carry extra minerals, protein and vitamins.
However, ultimately the answer to whether a performance horse will do well on a high-fibre, low-sugar diet will depend entirely upon the level of work the horse is undertaking, the speed of the work, the duration of the work and what level of carbohydrate is contained in the daily diet of grass, hay and haylage.
Carbohydrate levels play a huge contribution to stamina and duration of athletic ability at a top level. Typically analysis of hay and haylage shows combined starch and sugar levels of around 10%. Spring and summer grass can be considerably more.
If your horse is lacking in energy or hits a wall and runs out of energy, then it is likely that you need to raise carbohydrate levels and look to improve glycogen levels (the storage form of energy in muscles and the liver).
Benefits will also be seen from a supply of quick and short-release carbohydrates after exercise to replace and build glycogen reserves. It is also important to make sure sodium and protein are at adequate levels in the diet.
It is particularly common for a performance horse, prone to weight gain, to run out of puff because sugar and starch levels are being so well controlled that the horse never has enough to be able to top up the storage form of glucose that is called glycogen. There is very little glucose in the bloodstream due to low sugar management, so the horse just runs out of energy.
To fuel muscles and future performance and give your horse more stamina during any exercise try glycogen loading after work. Lethargy, poor stamina and poor muscle development may all be seen when a horse is low in protein, sodium or glycogen.
It also pays to be on the ball with minerals; feeding a forage-focused horse feed balancer to power the chemical and enzymatic processes in the body which use the glycogen and protein to build and repair body structures.
There is advice on using a protocol to glycogen load a performance horse later in this article.
Is fat good for my performance horse?
Fat sources have become a common ingredient in many performance horse feeds.
Fats are very energy-dense (2.25 times more calories than an equal weight of carbohydrate) and they are a cheap way of adding large amounts of supplemental energy to the daily feed. But not all fats are equal and high-fat feeding to a performance horse can create quite a few problems.
Fat is susceptible to rancidity and when a high-fat diet is fed to a horse, the horse is at a higher risk of developing cellular oxidative damage. If vitamin E, a natural antioxidant, is not provided in the daily diet, alongside the fat supplementation, there is likely to be oxidative damage.
Here at Forageplus, we are not fans of feeding a high-fat diet to a performance horse because of problems with rancidity and the effect fat has on reducing mitochondrial function and numbers in the cells. Research shows that mitochondrial health is likely to affect performance levels in all mammals.
How does mitochondrial health affect a performance horse?
Mitochondria are special compartments (organelles) in our cells that are best known for their role as powerhouses. They break down food molecules and turn out ATP, a molecular fuel for the rest of the cell.
They carry out many other important biological processes and are central to the correct functioning of the cells which will drive health, stamina and athleticism in performance horses.
The health of the mitochondria is intricately linked to horse health so a feeding approach that maximises mitochondrial health is vital for success.
When fed in excess, fat has the potential to disrupt mitochondrial health, hindgut fermentation and absorption of some minerals and vitamins.
Young, growing horses and horses putting significant stress on their bones by exercise, are in a state of high bone stress and remodelling that requires a ready availability of minerals and a supportive hormonal environment for growth/repair.
Studies looking at high-fat feeding in both horses and other animals have repeatedly found a negative effect on bone mineral content.
Is fat as an energy source for a performance horse as good as carbohydrates?
Glucose and glycogen (the stored form of glucose in muscles and the liver) are absolutely essential to life, let alone performance.
The body is equipped with multiple pathways for generating glucose in the event of low dietary intakes. The release of fatty acids from body fat stores occurs when blood glucose levels drop, as during fasting or starvation. This sends a red flag message to curb the burning of glucose and preserved, stored glycogen.
This simple fact affects performance negatively, particularly speed performance. In addition to impaired ability to utilise carbohydrates as fuel, high-fat feeding decreases glycogen stores. This is the kiss of death for speed work.
An unconditioned horse will produce higher levels of lactate. The body makes lactic acid when it is low in oxygen it needs to convert glucose into energy. Lactic acid buildup can result in muscle pain, cramps, and muscular fatigue. A well-conditioned horse doing the same level of exercise as an unconditioned one will have more mitochondria and better oxygen delivery to the muscle.
Training increases the efficiency of energy generation by increasing aerobic capacity. At a low level/aerobic exercise, high lactate is bad. However, as speed increases, it becomes mandatory to burn glucose anaerobically, producing lactate, because aerobic is too slow.
The myth however persists that feeding high fat to a performance horse is not only a cure-all but supports higher energy and stamina. There is no evidence to support this. In the studies that have looked at fat feeding in performance horses, the bottom line of effects on actual measurements of performance like speed or time to fatigue is simply not there.
Horses do need the right fat at the right levels in their diet though. Supporting essential omega 3 fat levels and using small amounts of feed containing medium chain triglycerides is what we recommend for a performance horse to have the most success for both speed and endurance exercise. This is discussed more later in this article.
How can I support performance horse electrolyte levels?
The electrolyte minerals to be concerned about are sodium, chloride and magnesium. Potassium will always be more than adequately supplied for more than 6 hours of intense exercise causing sweating through feeding at least 1.5% of a forage.
Low electrolyte levels can affect stamina and lethargy and even result in muscles tying up.
We add salt to our adult horse feed balancers so that maintenance needs are covered. Magnesium levels are very high in our adult balancers so electrolytes will be covered. But where you are exercising a horse daily and it is sweating, then more sodium will be needed to maintain correct levels.
You can feed salt to cover sodium and chloride losses through sweat in a small feed after each work session. If the feed contains a small amount of linseed for the oil then this is not only cheap but kind to the stomach.
More is covered on how much salt to feed at the end of this article.
How can I keep the performance horse digestive system healthy?
Horses evolved eating grasses that for the most part were high in complex carbohydrates, requiring fermentation by hindgut bacteria. The relationship between these bacteria and the horse is mutually beneficial because the horse absorbs the byproducts of the fermentation processes as an energy source. Maintaining the health of the microbial population is a vital component of nutritional management.
Many of the compound bagged feeds fed to a performance horse are fortified with a broad spectrum mix of vitamins and minerals. This can create a perception that the forage is nothing but filler.
A broad spectrum approach to mineral and vitamin supplementation is also less than optimum as it does not start with the grass and hay the horse eats as the greatest proportion of the diet. Minerals at the right levels, matched to forage, are key to the health of the digestive lining as is a range of amino acids coming from high-quality protein.
Care should be taken that horses should be consuming a minimum of 1.5% of their body weight per day as forage to keep the digestive system healthy and free from inflammation. This amounts to no less than 7.5 kg (for a 500 kg horse) of hay per day unless substituted with a high-fibre, fast-soak feed such as beet pulp, hay or grass nuts.
There are quite a few instances where digestive disturbance caused by low amounts of forage will cause horses to lose weight. In this situation, there can be the mistaken belief that the horse needs more bagged complete feed and thus a negative spiral is put in place.
Too little emphasis is placed on how hay, haylage or grass can provide a majority of the calories, protein, and minerals such as calcium and phosphorous, making it far more than just filler.
The bacterial population requires that adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates and fibre be provided in the diet and that the diet stay relatively static with only gradual changes. These gradual changes include changes in the hay and haylage source and turn out in the spring and summer onto the grass.
Often we forget that it is not just bagged food that can affect the digestive health and stability of the horses gut, even a change of hay source from a course stemmed timothy hay to a more soft-stemmed meadow hay needs to be a consideration. Gradual change will allow the bacteria in the hindgut time to adjust.
Maintaining and supporting digestive health can be achieved by using these simple measures:
- Make sure fibre levels are high in the diet and not compromised by feeding less than 1.5% of body weight of forage.
- If less than 1.5% of body weight of forage is fed then top up fibre levels using a high fibre feed such as beet pulp
- Analyse hay or haylage to check mineral balance and protein levels are optimum
- Balance the minerals and protein levels to either a specific forage or a common statistical average of forage in the UK or the country you live in.
- Top up protein and especially the essential amino acids after work as certain amino acids are crucial for a strong digestive epithelial lining.
- Understand that stress can decrease eating during travel and time spent away from the home environment. A high-quality digestive supplement may be needed to both boost protein and sooth the gut lining to keep the digestive system of a performance horse healthy.
What kind of hay should I feed a performance horse?
A careful selection of high-quality hay or haylage can mitigate several problems observed in the performance horse. For many performance horses, this forage will be hay.
Undesirable hay bellies, which are caused by consuming large amounts of low protein, poor quality forage on top of an inefficient digestive system, are best fixed not by reducing the amount of hay fed but by switching to a source of hay that is of better quality.
Conversely, feeding lower-quality hay to horses that typically need calorie intake restricted will allow a greater amount of hay to be consumed without the risk of weight gain.
Careful attention should still be made to protein levels and preferably an analysis of the hay made to check all nutrient levels. With careful hay selection, the amount of hay fed can be maximized for each horse, thus benefiting digestive physiology and reducing the risk of conditions such as equine gastric ulcer syndrome and stable vices like wood chewing.
Hay with a greater proportion of leaves relative to stems is usually of a higher quality and will often have a higher calorie and protein content versus stemmy hay with lower leaf content.
Hay or haylage cut later in the summer will have higher indigestible fibre content and often be lower in protein. However, you can never tell what the nutritional levels of hay or haylage are just by looking, you need to test to check.
Should a performance horse be fed a complete bagged feed?
The idea that a performance horse must have a complete bagged feed to get what he needs is a wildly successful marketing ploy. It plays into the convenience aspect of our busy modern lives. The colour and marketing hype on the bags tempts us, but a one size fits all, one-scoop approach is rarely successful. The reasons for this are many:
- The broad-spectrum approach used to fortify most complete feeds scatterguns many minerals and vitamins with some protein, but pays no attention to what is commonly contained in the grass and hay eaten. The broad spectrum approach plays into our feeling that the more there is in the ingredients list the better things must be. This is just not true if you look at the analysis results of forage.
- Where you have a poor doer needing a lot of calories to maintain weight then you will be directed to feed large amounts. If you have a good doer who can live off a sniff of a complete bagged feed you will be tempted into feeding small amounts to try to manage weight. The two horses working at the same level need the same rates of minerals, vitamins and protein to balance the hay and grass eaten, however, half a scoop can never hold the same nutrients as 2 scoops.
- If you have a horse that fizzes up and less complete feed has to be fed then this horse will be short-changed on protein, minerals and vitamins.
- Many complete bagged feeds contain high levels of starch, sugar, molasses and cereals like wheat which can be a problem for some horses
An approach that separates the individual nutritional components for basic calories and energy from minerals, vitamins and protein will be much more effective and efficient than a broad spectrum, one size fits all, complete bagged feed system.
How do I feed a fully balanced diet to my performance horse?
The purpose of concentrate feeds and supplements should be to provide what is missing in the forage portion of the daily feed. For nearly all forages, this means a source of major minerals, some trace minerals, certain vitamins, certain amino acids and the fatty acid omega-3.
For the majority of horses feeding a nutrient-dense, forage-focused horse feed balancer matched to a common profile of grass and hay in a fast soak fibre provider, in combination with hay, will provide nearly all of the necessary additional nutrients.
For horses unable to maintain condition on forage alone, a more calorie-dense feed, with a forage-focused horse feed balancer should be added to the daily feed bucket. Care should be taken to make sure calories are not excessive. Horses maintained with too much condition, which results from overfeeding, can experience the following issues:
- extra condition adds unnecessary wear and tear on joints and soft tissues and can result in soundness issues
- the extra condition may produce negative behaviours
- extra condition and overfeeding may result in high insulin levels and laminitis, especially in good-doer native types
Horses that are overfed calories can become exuberant, and when this is not given an appropriate outlet such as turnout, undesirable behaviours whilst riding can result. Feeds which contain high levels of molasses and cereals can be very problematic for some horses in this respect, so avoiding these is wise.
What about a fully balanced diet for a good-doer performance horse?
For those struggling to keep weight off good-doer horses or who feed commercial feeds in quantities less than the manufacturer-recommended amounts, a sub-optimal diet can result. Horses may appear to be in good condition when, in fact, they are suffering from a level of undernourishment. For example, copper is needed for the formation of collagen which is the foundation of tendons and ligaments.
Both copper and zinc are crucial for maintaining liver health. Where these minerals are both low in grass and hay, impacted by commonly high levels of iron or manganese, they can affect both performance and the maintenance of soundness and long-term health. Without careful attention to the diet, these deficiencies can potentially go unnoticed.
As the long-term impact of sub-optimal diets is not well documented in horses, issues being given causes completely unrelated to nutrition are the norm. Where a horse is fed a tight calorie controlled diet then protein levels must be monitored carefully to support the health of the lining of the digestive system. We know that the harder a horse works, the greater the demands are made on metabolism and physiology. In this situation, it is more than likely that nutrient deficiencies will negatively impact both health and performance. The impact will be slow and insidious and likely to be blamed on everything but the real cause, a suboptimal diet.
Why is a forage-focused approach better for feeding a performance horse?
In most cases, the simplest and most appropriate solution is to feed a more forage-focused diet where calories are carefully managed and ingredients like cereals and molasses are lowered or eliminated from the daily diet.
Nutrition is calories, minerals, vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids. Getting them all correct is the key to the protein and nutrients being used to maintain a high level of performance. The calories will then be diverted to energy use rather than fat storage and the processes in the body able to maintain, heal, repair and build structures.
Analysis of hay and grass will help create a balanced diet where each of the components of a powerful diet can be fed at the right levels for the age, workload and type of horse being fed. Separating the nutritional elements into the following is the most efficient and effective way to create the best performance, athleticism and longevity for all hard-working horses:
- A forage-focused balancer to supply minerals, vitamins and the most limiting amino acids
- Protein supplementation to supply a broad range of all the essential amino acids preferably matched to boost levels not provided in hay and fed after work
- Omega 3 supplementation – to balance the fatty acids not supplied through hay and haylage
- The right amount of separates to supply calories, in a high fibre concentrate form, at the right level for the type of horse
- Timed feeds after work to replenish and build muscles and glycogen supplies
What fat should I use with a performance horse?
If we go back to the ancestral horse and look at their diet of fresh grass they would be exposed to about 6% fat. Unlike plants, horses and other mammals are unable to create omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, so these nutrients must be provided in the diet.
Good-quality fresh pasture provides approximately three times more omega-3 fatty acid than omega-6. When grass is cut and dried, the omega-3s are lost and content drops to 2 to 3%. The omega 6 fat still remains in the hay or haylage. So it is omega 3 fat levels that a performance horse needs supplementing the most.
Linseed provides a good source of omega-3 fatty acids at approximately four times more omega-3 than omega-6. Replacing the lost fat, in a hay or haylage diet, using high omega-3 micronised linseed at a rate of 42 grams per 220 kg of body weight, restores the diet to the fresh grass levels and thus the levels of fat the horse has evolved to need and function on best.
For a 500 kg horse, the level of linseed needing to be fed would be 95 grams per day. Micronising stabilises the omega-3 content. Unless stabilized, the fatty acids will oxidize once ground.
Grains, soya and vegetable oils tend to provide larger amounts of omega-6 than omega-3. Corn oil, for example, provides approximately 45 times more omega-6 than an omega-3 fatty acid. This is one reason to never feed vegetable oil to horses. This includes soya oil.
The relative amount of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet may have important implications for inflammation within the body. The ratio in a good quality grass pasture is about 3:1 omega-3 to omega-6. High-cereal and high-soya diets will throw the ratio the other way, and this has the potential to be pro-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory.
Research conducted at U.C. Davis in the USA revealed a 60% drop in biomarkers of inflammation after supplementation with a product containing an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 4:1. Competition exists between omega-6 and -3 fatty acids at the cellular level; therefore, the dietary fatty acid composition has the potential to impact several important cellular level functions relevant to performance.
Fat is an important fuel for maintenance and while glucose/glycogen is the premier most versatile fuel, the ability to store it is limited so the horse’s body is geared to use other fuels. Studies have shown that for low-level mooching around, fat is preferentially burned along with acetate and spares valuable glycogen stores. Acetate best comes from the fermentation of hay and unmolassed beet pulp so a high-fibre diet is once again of benefit to all performance horses.
Provision of fat at levels between 5 – 10% of the total diet is within the range in which the horse evolved and at this concentration is not harmful. This level will spare glucose for more intensive exercise. For a horse that is doing so much exercise that a normal body condition score is hard to maintain, such as an endurance horse, that would be the only time to recommend higher levels.
The forms of fat we prefer are whole food sources, micronised linseed and Copra, which is a high medium-chain triglyceride fat-containing feed. Medium-chain triglycerides are an easily digested fat and Copra, a by-product of the coconut industry, is high in this beneficial fat.
We would never recommend feeding processed vegetable oils to horses.
Feeding a performance horse: Acetyl-L-Carnitine
L-carnitine is a compound found in the horse’s body. Two essential amino acids, lysine and methionine serve as primary substrates for its biosynthesis. Interestingly analysis of the nutritional and mineral amounts in forage, commonly found in Europe and the UK, indicate that methionine and lysine are often short due to incorrect ratios between sulphur and nitrogen.
It stands to reason then that this important compound might well be short in the diets of certain horses and needs supplementing through the addition of acetyl-L-carnitine in the horses daily diet.
L-carnitine is very important for transporting fats, to be used as fuel, from the cytoplasm of cells into the mitochondria.
The fact that forage analysis reports often show low levels of the components needed for L-carnitine synthesis may mean that many horses in moderate to heavy work, or just starting training, will benefit from the inclusion of this compound in their diet.
Intensive exercise greatly increases the demand on muscle tissue to produce energy from glucose, stored glucose (glycogen) and fat. Acetyl-L-carnitine will help the horse adapt to training more quickly, reducing muscle soreness and stiffness allowing quicker recovery times.
Many of the benefits are likely to be due to the higher acetyl-L-carnitine levels that result when L-carnitine is supplemented. The effects of acetyl-L-carnitine in increasing the flow of fuels to the mitochondria and encouraging the production of mitochondria are also effects of training.
Glycogen loading with a performance horse
To support glycogen loading, sodium and protein levels, follow this protocol at the same time as providing minerals and vitamins matched to grass and hay:
- Feed a small feed after each work period. We find unmolassed sugar beet and oats with 50 grams of Essential Amino Acids after work. Feeding 100 grams of beet pulp and 50-100 grams of naked oats (porridge) is perfect for an average 500 kg horse. This will replenish glycogen supplies in the liver and muscles with the beet pulp being a slow-release and the oats a fast-release but low glycemic carbohydrate source.
- Feed the feed directly after work as this is when the body is most hungry to replenish the glycogen supplies and it will be done most efficiently.
- If you feel your horse needs a larger feed then stick to a 50:50 mixture of beet pulp to oats and increase up to 300 grams of each.
- Alternatively, you could use Pea Protein or Topline Plus instead of Essential Amino Acids. Essential Amino Acids after work at 50 grams and also 100 grams of pea protein in the daily bucket feed with the balancer will give a great range of the essential amino acids. Whether you do one or both is down to how much exercise your horse does and the possible levels of protein in the hay and grass eaten and the bucket feed fed.
- Consider using forage analysis to check protein levels of hay and haylage.
- If the hay or haylage fed is low in protein for moderate to heavy work, then include 100 grams of Pea Protein or Topline Plus each day in the bucket feed. Horses seem to love the taste which is a bonus.
- Feed plain salt – table, rock or sea salt to replace the electrolyte minerals, sodium and chloride, lost through sweating after work – 1 x 25 ml just in the feed after work at least – some hays are so low in sodium, that 50 ml is needed per hour of continuous sweating.
What amount of electrolytes does a performance horse need?
Although people are drawn towards an electrolyte supplement this often conspires against you as what your horse is likely to need in the greatest amounts is sodium. The sodium in these electrolyte supplements will be lower than just feeding plain salt.
Where an analysis report is not available, if sweating occurs, feeding 30 -50 grams of table, rock or sea salt, per one continuous hour of sweating after work or in the evening feed, on the day of exercise is likely to replace the electrolytes needed.
Calculate the likely hourly continuous sweating and adjust accordingly if you do something like eventing, a fun ride or hunting where sweating hours mount up. This will replace lost sodium and chloride and will be a much cheaper and more effective electrolyte supplement than anything you will buy from a horse company.
Any lost magnesium will be covered by the balancer which is high in magnesium. Where longer periods of sweating occur then double or even triple this amount.
Many horses do not consume enough salt from a block to meet their minimum sodium requirement. Minimum requirements are equivalent to a 1 kg block of salt a month for a 500 kg horse living in cool weather and doing no work. This is why supplementing salt at a minimum level matched to that found to balance grass and hay should be done in the daily diet rather than relying on a salt block.
Knowing how much to feed for each hour of sweating is also important and analysis of grass, hay or haylage will give you more specific information about this. You should however always provide a salt block because it provides a useful warning of whether your horse is searching for more salt. If you see your horse attacking a salt block after periods of continuous sweating then assume levels of sodium and or chloride are low and add into the daily diet as salt.
In the late summer and early autumn months when horses are growing a heavier coat, which may need clipping, they will often seek out and need more salt in the diet to cover the sodium and chloride electrolyte losses due to sweating more and for longer.
Experience of many endurance horses, who throughout the summer have been using up stored electrolyte supplies that have not been adequately replaced, shows that horses are far more likely to tie up in the September and October competitions when the weather is warm.
Many people don’t realise that this is just because inadequate attention to sodium levels has created a tipping point. The warm weather and the heavy coat create the perfect storm which can be avoided if you just feed enough salt throughout the whole season to keep reserves in the tissues and bones high.
There is a useful article here on electrolytes, how lack of them affects horses and how easy it is to sort this out.
What vitamins does a performance horse need?
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects sensitive cell membrane components from oxidative damage. Currently, the NRC recommends a minimum daily intake of 1.6 to 2 IU/ kg body weight per day for working horses.
There is research showing that levels above this may improve performance in some horses, especially those doing rigorous speed or endurance work or suffering from neuromuscular disorders. For this reason, we suggest a minimum of 2000 iu per day for a horse not eating more than 6 hours of green and growing spring or summer pasture.
A diet of good-quality fresh pasture provides significantly more vitamin E than the above recommendation. However, due to oxidation processes, naturally occurring vitamin E in pasture declines dramatically in winter grass and during curing for hay as well as in other feed ingredients that undergo processing.
Losses in hay can be so great that stored forage should not be relied upon as an adequate source for performance horses. In some instances, separate vitamin E supplementation to raise the level to 5000 iu per day may be justified, especially for horses in intense speed work and those showing signs of muscle soreness or prone to recurrent tying-up.
The only other vitamins to worry about with a performance horse are the B vitamins because A and D will be fully supplied through fresh grass, hay and haylage. If horses are eating less than 2% of their body weight in forage then adding biotin, thiamine (B1), folate and pyridoxine (B6) are a must. The increased turnover of protein, fat and carbohydrate in exercising horses is likely to increase requirements.
Do I need to feed selenium with vitamin E to a performance horse?
Selenium is commonly fed with vitamin E to keep muscles optimally healthy. Selenium requirements, though minute, in the daily diet, need to be supplemented at 2 mg per day to match the commonly poor levels seen in hays throughout Europe and the UK. There are exceptions in France and small pockets of the UK, where selenium is higher and so supplementation would either not be necessary or advisable.
The margin of safety for selenium supplementation is small so where there is evidence to suggest the forage is from a high selenium area we suggest analyse of grass or hay or, if this is not possible, using a no selenium forage-focused horse feed balancer. This is also why we do not combine selenium with a vitamin E supplement.
What are the best separate feeds for a performance horse
We have our favourite separates to feed, which we select for their high fibre, protein and concentrated short and long energy sources. Sometimes, horses will struggle to eat the volume of food needed to provide the energy and calories for high levels of work. A careful selection is needed for the best success.
Feeds like chaff are usually far too bulky, so we opt for higher-calorie feeds. We also like to feed a range of separates so that the amino acid profile from the protein content is as varied as possible. How much you feed will depend upon the type of horse and its work level and activity.
The beauty of feeding this type of bucket feed is the high-fibre nature can be used as a hay replacer and so digestive issues are far less likely. The other beauty is that you can tailor make the calorie levels for a poor doer or good doer horse at the same time as keeping the protein, mineral and vitamin fraction of the diet at optimum.
Where you choose to feed oats you should always use two parts hay/grass pellets or beet pulp to 1 part oats to avoid issues with the carbohydrate fraction of this cereal. Oats are the only cereal which we suggest using with all horses due to their low glycemic index.
The following are suggested minimum and maximum amounts of separate feeds for a performance horse.
|Min/Max Amounts||Separate Choices|
|100 - 1 kg||Grass/Hay Pellets|
|100 - 1 kg (dry weight)||Unmollassed Beet Pulp|
|100 - 500 grams||Alfalfa pellets (some horses may react to alfalfa so care needed)|
|100 - 500 grams||Wheat Bran|
|100 - 500 grams||Micronised linseed|
|100 grams - 1 kg||Oats (naked porridge are our preference)|
|100 - 500 grams||Copra|
Will my performance horse get enough protein?
Protein levels for horses in moderate to heavy work do rise quite significantly but in general if you are feeding a generous bucket feed of the suggestions above and ad-lib hay, or more than 6 hours of good spring and summer grazing, then protein levels will be covered.
It is always wise however to boost the essential amino acids after work as these can only be obtained from food. Leucine in particular needs to be at high levels. Young horses working at high levels are likely to need a protein supplement since their needs are higher due to them also growing and developing.
Summary of feeding a performance horse recommendations
- The hard part when feeding a hard-working, performance horse is getting the correct level of minerals, vitamins, and protein to provide the chemistry to fuel repeated high-level athletic performance and support the best health and soundness.
- The primary diet should always have a foundation in forage (grass, hay or haylage), regardless of whether the horse is a retired pasture ornament or an Olympic-level showjumper.
- Whenever possible mineral and nutritional levels of hay should be tested, especially when several months of hay are purchased at one time. Make sure that the report provides equine-based information.
- A forage-focused horse feed supplement providing magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, chloride, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, lysine, methionine and vitamin E (if off spring and summer grass) should be added to provide necessary minerals, vitamins and limiting amino acids.
- Horses should be consuming a minimum of 1.5% of their body weight per day as forage to keep the digestive system healthy and free from inflammation. This amounts to no less than 7.5 kg (for a 500 kg horse) of hay per day unless substituted with a high fibre-fast soak feed such as beet pulp, hay or grass nuts.
- A careful selection of high-quality hay and forages can mitigate several problems observed in equine athletes. Attention should be made to protein and mineral levels and preferably an analysis of the hay made to check all nutrient levels.
- Separating the calorie and energy element of the daily diet from the mineral, vitamin and amino acid elements will mean that all horses have access to the right level of nutrients no matter how big or small the daily bucket feed. This will always be superior to a one size fits all compound bagged feed system.
- The purpose of concentrate feeds and supplements should be to provide what is missing in the forage portion of the daily feed. For nearly all forages, this means a source of major minerals, some trace minerals, certain vitamins, certain amino acids and the fatty acid omega-3.
- For the majority of horses feeding a nutrient-dense, forage-focused horse feed balancer matched to a common profile of grass and hay in a fast soak fibre provider in combination with hay will provide nearly all of the necessary additional nutrients.
- For those struggling to keep weight off good doers and those who restrict forage feeding, a sub-optimal diet can result. Horses may appear to be in good condition when, in fact, they are suffering from a level of undernourishment which will affect structures like the hoof wall, stomach lining, tendons and ligaments.
- Where a horse is fed a tight calorie controlled diet then protein levels must be monitored carefully to support the health of the lining of the digestive system.
- Nutrition is calories, minerals, vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids. Getting them all correct is the key to the protein being used, the calories being diverted to energy use rather than fat storage, and the processes in the body being able to maintain, heal, repair and build structures.
- When fed in excess, fat has the potential to disrupt mitochondrial health, hindgut fermentation and absorption of some minerals and vitamins. In the studies that have looked at fat feeding in performance horses, the bottom line of effects on actual measurements of performance like speed or time to fatigue is simply not there.
- Replacing the lost fat, in a hay or haylage diet, using high omega-3 micronised linseed at a rate of 42 grams per 220 kg of body weight, restores the diet to the fresh grass levels and thus the levels of fat the horse has evolved to need and function best on.
- Studies have shown that for low-level mooching around, fat is preferentially burned along with acetate and spares valuable glycogen stores. Acetate best comes from the fermentation of hay and unmolassed beet pulp so a high-fibre diet is once again of benefit to all performance horses.
- Fat should be fed at levels between 5 – 10% of the total diet. At this concentration, fat will not be harmful and will spare glucose for more intensive exercise. Vegetable oil fat sources are best avoided due to rancidity and high omega-6 levels.
- Acetyl-L-carnitine will help the horse adapt to training more quickly, reducing muscle soreness and stiffness and allowing quicker recovery times.
- If your horse is lacking in energy or hits a wall and runs out of energy then look to improving glycogen levels and making sure sodium and protein are at adequate levels in the diet.
- It pays to be on the ball, with all horses, with minerals with a forage-focused horse feed balancer to power the chemical and enzymatic processes in the body which use the glycogen and the protein to build and repair body structures.
- Where an analysis report is not available if sweating occurs feeding 30 – 50 grams of table, rock or sea salt after work or in the evening feed on the day of exercise is likely to replace the electrolytes needed. Feed double or even triple this if you do something like eventing, a fun ride or hunting.
- Always provide a salt block in the stable area because it provides a useful warning of whether your horse is searching for more salt.
- Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that protects cell membranes from oxidative damage. It can be found in good-quality fresh pasture. Vitamin E can be supplemented up to 5000 iu per day for a horse in hard work. Moderate work levels are likely to need 2000-3000 iu per day.
- If horses are eating less than 2% of their body weight in forage then adding biotin, thiamine (B1), folate and pyridoxine (B6) are a must. The increased turnover of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in exercising horses is likely to increase requirements.
- Selenium requirements, though minute in the daily diet, are likely to need to be supplemented at 2 mg per day to match the commonly poor levels seen in hays throughout Europe and the UK.
- Feed a range of separates so that the amino acid profile from the protein content is as varied as possible. How much you feed will be dependent upon the type of horse and its work level and activity. We like to choose from grass/hay pellets, beet pulp, oats, wheat bran, micronised linseed, and copra because those will boost fibre and protein levels.
- It is always wise to boost the essential amino acids after work as these can only be obtained from food. Leucine in particular needs to be at high levels.
Contact us if you want further help to develop a powerful forage focused approach to feeding your performance horse