With any horse, there are factors such as breed, age, body type and activity level that influence a horse’s dietary needs. Equines that need additional nutritional support are pregnant or nursing mares, breeding stallions and performance horses. Horses that are in heavy training or competing regularly require additional calories, protein, vitamins and minerals to meet their energy needs while maintaining their overall health and body condition.
Equestrian Disciplines That Influence a Horse’s Nutrient Requirements
When people think of horses that work hard, train hard and compete even harder, thoroughbred racing often comes to mind. While it’s true, they may endure intense workouts and training regimens, there are many disciplines that require maximum effort from the horse.
Here are several types of English and Western riding disciplines that may increase a horse’s need for a high-energy diet:
- Thoroughbred racing
- Quarter Horse racing
- Harness racing
- Barrel racing
- Endurance racing
- Combined driving
- Cross country jumping
- Fox Hunting
- Vaulting/Trick Riding
Feeding Equines with Heavy Conditioning and Training Schedules
When it comes to nutritional requirements, racehorses and performance horses require large quantities of high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and fats (calories). In order to perform and to sustain that performance, whether it’s racing, jumping, eventing or any other competition, horses need dietary energy. Grazing alone or feeding low-quality maintenance feeds do not fulfill these requirements. The equine body needs a fuel source to support the energy expended during exercise. That requirement is often double that of a maintenance level horse.
Dietary Energy Needs of Competition Horses
Competition horses cannot meet their dietary needs by forage alone. Estimating how much energy (calories) your horse needs, you have to consider how much work is being done, the kind of work your horse is doing (low or high intensity) and the horse’s developmental stage.
Fiber – Proper gut function is essential to the health of a horse and its digestive system is designed to utilize fiber-rich forage. As hay and grass slowly move through the hindgut, it is fermented which is then used as an energy source. Some horse trainers choose to add beet pulp as another highly fermentable fiber choice.
Starch (carbohydrates) – Cereal grains such as oats, corn and barley provide extra calories. Starches or carbs is the source for glycogen (glucose and insulin) that the body uses to fuel quick bursts of energy. It’s stored in the muscles, liver and fat cells.
Note: Horses prone to tying up may do better on low-starch feeds.
Fats – High-fat feeds and high-calorie supplements typically rely on healthy oils to increase the digestible fats needed to maintain body condition. Using fats to increase the caloric intake of a performance horse relieves the need to increase the actual feed volume.
Protein – Next to energy, protein is the most essential nutrient in your equine athlete’s diet. It’s a building block for hoof, hair, skin, tissues, blood, bones and of course, muscle. Protein is composed of amino acids that repair and build muscle making it a crucial element of any training program involving heavy workloads.
Feeding for Conditioning and Performance
Complete Horse Feeds
Most complete feeds that are commercially made typically include all the major energy sources we’ve already discussed (starch, fat, fiber and protein). They are intended to help increase the calorie intake of horses in training or competition without increasing the actual amount of grain being fed. Complete feeds are either textured (sweet feed) or pelleted feed and both include essential vitamins and minerals.
Equine Energy and Muscle Builder Supplements
Since the equine digestive system is designed to digest small amounts over time, overloading your horse’s gut with large amounts of grain can cause serious health issues including colic. If you feel your horse needs additional energy (fats/calories) or muscle-building components, you can choose to add a feed supplement that corresponds to the desired effect. This is a safe alternative to overfeeding any horse requiring more calories. Reading labels will help you decide which product and ingredients are right for you and your horse.
Matching Your Horse’s Diet to Its Workload
Performance horses have specific nutrient requirements that differ from that of other horses. If your horse is typically turned out, used for pleasure or light work, he or she will easily become overweight on diet intended for horses in competition. When horses are working hard, they require an energy source, nutrients for muscle function, and electrolytes to replenish the balance of fluids and body functions. Ensure that each horse in your care has unlimited access to fresh water and is fed plenty of forage (hay) especially if they are often stall kept. If you are unsure of your horse’s nutritional requirements, ask your vet to evaluate the current diet and what his or her recommendations are before making changes.