How to Feed Performance Horses

Fundamentally, the way we feed a performance horse does not differ from the non-performance horse. The basis of the diet is good quality forage that is fed at a rate of at least 1.5% of the horse’s body weight. Performance feeds are fed to meet non-energy nutrient (amino acids, minerals and vitamins) needs that aren’t met by the hay or pasture and, sometimes, to supply additional calories for the horse who does not maintain its weight on forage alone.

There are sometimes subtler intricacies involved in developing a diet for a performance horse based on the specific discipline and type of work that is being performed.

What Nutrient Needs Increase with Work?

The figure below shows the magnitude in increase of select nutrients needed by the horse with an increase in work level over that of light work. Digestible energy, or calorie, needs increase as work level increases in order to support the energy demands of work, while also maintaining body condition. Many non-energy nutrient needs also increase. The non-energy nutrients support important functions, such as muscle development and recovery, antioxidant status, electrolyte balance, as well as general health. Performance horse feeds are designed to accommodate the increase in your horse’s nutrient requirements with increased work.

Many horses require more calories as their work level increases, which makes the need for more non-energy nutrients simple because you are already increasing feed intake with increased levels of work. However, horses that are easier keepers may not require notable increases in feed to maintain their weight. In fact, you may be exercising the easy keeper more heavily simply to keep them at an ideal weight for their health and riding discipline.

For these horses, a ration balancer, such as Essential K® or Wholesome Blends™ Balancer, may still be appropriate, even with heavier work. The amount of ration balancer that is fed will need increased to increase the horse’s non-energy nutrient intake – this affects the horse’s calorie intake very little. Horses that are on the low end of the feeding rate of a full intake feed (4-5 lb/day for 1,000 lb horse), like Kalm ‘N EZ® or Senior Sport™, often benefit from a ration balancer on top of their current diet to increase non-energy nutrient intake without increasing calories.

What Nutrients Differ Depending on Discipline?

Two key areas in equine nutrition where horses’ dietary requirements may differ (depending on discipline) are electrolyte needs and the balance of the sources of energy (calories) in the diet. All horses, regardless of work level, should be offered plain white salt. As horses work harder, particularly if they are in hot and humid climates, their electrolyte needs increase to replenish the nutrients lost in sweat. Horses in intense levels of work or those working for long periods of time, such as endurance horses, often require more frequent electrolyte supplementation. The exact needs are dependent on climate and work level/intensity.

The other area of focus is on the balance and sources of energy in the horse’s diet, specifically what proportion of energy is made of “hotter” sources of energy (sugar and starch; non-structural carbohydrates (NSC)) and what proportion comes from “cooler” energy sources, such as fat and fiber. We’ve previously discussed NSC in detail, although much of the focus is on minimizing NSC in the diet of horses with metabolic issues, like Insulin Resistance or PSSM Type 1.

The super high NSC diets of past tradition, like sweet feed or straight oats, aren’t optimal for health and performance of horses competing at any level. High NSC diets can contribute to hyper-excitability and increase the likelihood of gastro-intestinal upset, both of which contribute to decreased performance. Ulcer-prone horses can especially benefit from a reduction in NSC because sugars can be fermented into acid in the stomach, which increases the risk of ulcer development. Further, diets high in NSC that are fed in large quantities may result in starch bypassing digestion in the small intestine, which is where it should be digested. Starch that reaches the hindgut of the horse is rapidly fermented and the end-products of that fermentation alter the environment of the hindgut to be less hospitable to the normal population of fiber digesting microbes and, ultimately, can result in symptoms of hindgut upset, such as gas, diarrhea and, in extreme cases, compromise the lining of the hindgut. However, as the intensity of work increases, the horse’s ability to use NSC and their need for NSC also increases. Horses with lower intensity jobs, or those who do slow and steady type work, benefit from the greater proportion of their calories coming from fat and fiber. NSC plays an important role in providing fast energy and replenishing muscle glycogen. For example, strict NSC restriction in a race horse would limit performance and increase recovery times.

Common Performance Horse Issues

Two common performance horse issues are the horse that is hyperactive and the horse that is lazy. In both scenarios, we can tailor the diet to eliminate a nutritional component to horse behavior; however, nutrition cannot change the fundamental temperament of a horse. Simply put, some horses will naturally fall on the hotter or lazier end of the spectrum and our ability to change that through nutrition is not absolute.

Tribute® Superior Equine Nutrition offers a number of feeds that are appropriate for the performance horse. Contact us for a free, personalized equine feeding plan.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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