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Feeding the Performance Horse

Feeding a Performance Horse for Success

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?

Your questions about how to feed a hard-working, performance horse might be:

  • 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 or sport horse?
  • Will you get better performance from your 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?

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 this 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. The table below will help you decide if your horse is in moderate and above work:

CategoryMean Heart RateDescription
Light80 beats/minute 1 to 3 hours/week; 40% walk, 50% trot, 105 canter
Moderate90 beats/minute3 to 5 hours/week; 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% low jumping or other skill work
Heavy110 beats/minute4 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 hay and haylage too much and relying on hard feed in the form of compound feed is likely to shoot you in the hoof!

Whenever possible mineral and nutritional levels of hay should be tested, especially when several months of hay are purchased at one time. Compared with the cost of hay, testing is a very modest investment for information about the calorie, protein, carbohydrate fractions, macro and trace mineral content. Make sure that the report analysis provides horse-based information. When an analysis is not viable then feeding a forage focused supplement is the next best option. 

Once the hay 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 off spring and summer grass) should be added to provide necessary minerals, vitamins and limiting amino acids.

The benefit of balancing feed to the grass and hay 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.

Keeping the 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 compound bagged feeds, fed to hard-working horses are fortified with vitamins and minerals. This can create a perception that the forage is nothing but filler. Care should be taken as the majority of 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 substituting 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.

What kind of hay should I feed a performance horse?

Careful selection of high-quality hay or haylage can mitigate several problems observed in equine athletes. 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 year will have higher indigestible fibre content and often be lower in protein.  You can never tell what the sugar and starch levels of hay or haylage are just by looking.

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 pays no attention to what is commonly contained in the grass and hay eaten. It plays into our feeling that the more there is in the ingredients list the better things must be.
  • Where you have a poor doer needing a lot of calories to maintain weight then you will be directed to feed large amounts.  Where you have a good doer who can live on 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 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 also be much more effective and efficient than a broad spectrum one size fits complete bagged feed system.

How do I ensure a fully balanced feed for 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 for 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.

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, 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 and impacted by commonly high levels of iron or manganese, they can affect both performance and the maintenance of 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 likely nutrient deficiencies will negatively impact both health and performance.

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 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 being used. 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 healthy 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
Feeding the Performance Horse
Feeding a Performance Horse for Success 4

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. However, here at Forageplus, we are not fans of feeding high-fat diets to horses because of the effect they have on reducing mitochondrial function and numbers in the cells. Research shows that mitochondrial health affects performance levels in all mammals.

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 stresses on their bone 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.

Fat is susceptible to rancidity and where 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. 

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 depots 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 a 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-trained horse doing the same level of exercise 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 fat to horses is not only a cure-all but supports higher performance. There is no evidence to support it. 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.

What fat should I feed to my 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%.

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 and 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 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 the 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.

Performance Horses and 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, reduce 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.

Can I feed a low sugar and starch diet to a performance or sport horse?

The answer to this 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.  Typically analysis of hay and haylage shows levels around 10% sugar and starch.  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 look to improving glycogen levels and making 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 levels are being so well controlled 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 pays then 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.  Benefits will also be seen from a supply of quick and short release carbohydrates after exercise to replace and build glycogen reserves.

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 this 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.  If you know, through forage analysis, the hay 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 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.

What electrolytes does my horse need?

The electrolyte minerals o 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 that 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. If you feed this as salt in a small feed then you will also cover chloride losses and if the feed contains a small amount of linseed for the oil then this is not only cheap but kind to the stomach.

Although people are drawn towards an electrolyte supplement this often conspires against you as what your horse is likely to need 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 after work or in the evening feed on the day of exercise is likely to replace the electrolytes needed. Feed double this if you do something like eventing, a fun ride or hunting where sweating hours mount up. This will replace lost sodium and chloride and be a much cheaper and much 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. There is a useful article on how lack of electrolytes affects horses and how easy it is to sort this out.

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.  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. 

In the late summer and early autumn months where 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 connect that this is just because inadequate attention to sodium levels have created a tipping point.  The warm weather and the heavy coat creates 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 affect horses and how easy it is to sort this out.

Electrolytes for performance horses
Feeding a Performance Horse for Success 5

What vitamins does my 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.

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 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 separates to feed with a horse feed balancer supplement?

We have our favourite separates to feed, which we select for their high fibre, protein and concentrated energy source.  Sometimes horses will struggle to eat the volume of food to provide the energy and calories they need when they do high levels of work.  Feeds like chaff are usually far too bulky so we opt for high 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 be dependent 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. 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. The following are suggested minimum and maximum amounts.

Min/Max Amounts Separate Choices
100 - 1 kgGrass/Hay Pellets
100 - 1 kg (dry weight)Unmollassed Beet Pulp
100 - 500 gramsAlfalfa pellets (some horses may react to alfalfa so care needed)
100 - 500 gramsWheat Bran
100 - 500 gramsMicronised linseed
100 grams - 1 kgOats (naked porridge are our preference)
100 - 500 gramsCopra

Will my 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 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 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 substituting with a high fibre fast soak feed such as beet pulp, hay or grass nuts.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 that 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 high omega 6 levels.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine will help the horse adapt to training more quickly, reduce muscle soreness and stiffness 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 20 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, 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, wheat bran 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.
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