Feeding Horses For Athletic Performance: What To Feed And When
A horse’s nutritional requirements are based on their workload, age, bodyweight, and overall health. Creating a nutrition plan for your performance horse should consider the additional energy and nutrients required to sustain their training whilst trying to maintain their health. Below we answer some of the FAQs relating to the performance horse.
How Important Is Forage For The Performance Horse?
When feeding your horse to support their training and maintain their health, forage should be at the forefront of your mind, and your nutrition plan. Forage plays an essential role in the horse’s health, and ensuring sufficient high fibre horse feed is consumed is the first step to reducing the risk of digestive issues. Fibre supplies energy to the horse in a slow release form but also has important functions in the digestive system such as acting as a fluid reservoir.
How does a horses’ lifestyle impact its digestive health (in terms of travelling, turnout, stabling etc.)? How can the horse owner lessen this effect?
The key issue is how long we let the horse eat for and what we let it eat. If the horse is travelling for long periods we don’t want the gut to be empty so offering forage is important. The greater the amount of fibrous material in the diet the healthier the horse will generally be. High quality fibres such as alfalfa and sugar beet can make a really valuable energy and protein requirements so it is not a compromise to use fibre based rations. When combined with oil, alfalfa can provide as much energy as a competition mix but with, on average, about 10 times less starch making it a much safer alternative.
What Are The Three Key Points To Remember When Feeding For Competition?
- Make sure the diet is balanced for the level of competition the horse is doing – often, low spec feeds are fed because the horse doesn’t need a competition mix but this means the levels of vitamins and minerals are lower too. Top up with a balancer or supplement that is formulated for horses in harder work.
- Don’t think that you have to use cereal based feeds – fibre and oil can provide just as much energy and in a form that doesn’t make horses over-excitable. Research shows that even racehorses can run on fibre and oil without losing weight or compromising performance.
- Feeding a good double handful of chopped fibre 20 mins before exercise should help to reduce the risk of ulcers as it stops acid splashing around in the stomach.
Which Ingredients Are Most Important For Stamina And Energy? How Do They Work?
Fibre and oil provide slow release energy and the starch in cereals provides quick release energy
Research has shown that feeding oil for around 3 to 4 weeks can help to improve stamina as the horse is conditioned to utilise the oil at low intensities. This “saves” the glycogen stores which are in the muscles and liver, for when the horse moves into higher intensity work. The horse needs time to adjust to this so just adding oil the night before a competition won’t work.
As cereals contain starch which provides quick release energy, they tend to be used for horses that need more sparkle. It is important not to feed too much in one meal or too much overall as higher levels of starch increase the risk of problems such as gastric ulcers, colic and laminitis. If someone is feeding 2 kgs or cereals and it is having no effect on the horse’s energy levels then it is unlikely that feeding more will make any difference and the risks outweigh the benefits.
Any energy that isn’t used, whatever the source, will be stored as fat and put weight on the horse. Just adding more energy when a horse is overweight or unfit is not going to improve their performance!
What Is Best Practice When Feeding Prior To Or At A Competition?
- Don’t make a sudden change just because you’re going to a competition.
- Feed plenty of fibre when the horse is travelling and at the competition to maintain normal, healthy gut function.
- Soaked feeds can help take water into the gut to aid hydration – useful if a horse doesn’t drink much when away from home.
- Take your own water with you or flavour it at home and take the flavour with you to encourage the horse to drink – they can tell when it’s not their usual water!
- Use electrolytes the day before, of and after the competition if you don’t use them routinely.