Feed Your Horse For Optimal Performance

Discover how your horse’s diet plays an important role in optimizing his performance and recovery.
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feeding horse hay in stall
The foundation of any equine diet—athlete or not—should be forage. | Photos.com

Use nutrition to optimize performance and recovery

As most horse owners are aware, feeding horses is no longer as simple as picking up a bag of oats or cracked corn and throwing a few scoops into a shared feed trough. The myriad horse feed options available, manufactured by companies large and small, can quickly become overwhelming. Add to that the thousands of supplements and other feed-through remedies marketed to horse people, and even experienced farm owners go cross-eyed.

Choosing the best nutrition program for a backyard pony can be challenging, let alone a high-performance equine athlete. But it’s a critical piece of care for performance horses we often overlook—because owners might or might not have a choice in what their horse gets fed at the boarding barn, or they might not have the knowledge to critically evaluate all the options available for their athlete.

Forage as the Foundation for Equine Athletes

An appropriate base performance diet does two things: It provides enough calories via carbohydrates and fats for the horse to maintain optimal body condition and perform his job, and it provides the proper amount of nutrition in the form of vitamins, minerals, and protein to maintain muscle and organ function. In addition to the base diet, supplemental nutrients can support preparation for and recovery from intense exercise and other athlete-specific concerns, such as muscle recovery and gastrointestinal support.

The foundation of any equine diet—athlete or not—should be forage. For most horses this means hay and/or grass. Equine digestive tracts do best when they are in use, working to digest long-stem forage. Forage can often be fed free-choice, which is usually the most healthful option for equine athletes. (If the horse is overweight or has a metabolic condition, owners should consult their veterinarians about appropriate ways to limit forage intake.) The type of forage you provide (pasture, grass hay, alfalfa hay, or a mix) will depend on each horse’s breed, body type, age, and energy needs. Besides providing fiber and calories, free-choice forage can help protect against the development of gastric ulcers. Horses produce stomach acid continuously, so having something to digest in the stomach and reduce splash can minimize the acid’s harmful effects on the stomach lining.

Concentrate Feeds for Performance Horses

Add grain, or concentrate, depending on the horse’s breed, job, and body condition. Equine athletes that don’t need the additional calories concentrates provide typically receive ration balancers. These are highly fortified pelleted feeds with a high percentage of protein (usually 30% or more), as well as most of the vitamins and minerals horses need that aren’t available in sufficient quantities in grass and/or hay. They are designed to be fed at a low daily rate (1-3 pounds per day, depending on the brand), and they don’t provide a lot of extra calories. These feeds are appropriate for horses that don’t need extra energy, or they can be combined with a high-calorie fat supplement.

Performance feeds are energy-dense concentrates and can be found in pelleted and textured forms. They generally contain a comparably higher percentage of carbohydrates and fat than ration balancers and must be fed at a higher rate (usually 4-10 pounds per day) for the horse to receive an adequate amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Performance feeds vary as to how much energy comes from carbohydrates versus fat, and each horse’s job and temperament can influence which type of energy will best meet his performance needs.

Rachel Mottet, PhD, is an equine nutritionist and owner of Legacy Equine Nutrition, an independent equine nutrition consulting business based in Ocala, Florida. She says hard-working athletes need fat or starch for energy, and the precise blend depends on the unique metabolism of each horse, along with its discipline. When evaluating an athlete’s diet, she starts by looking at the horse and asking the owner lots of questions: “How does the horse feel under saddle? Enough fuel? Too much energy? There’s an art to it. It’s a delicate balance,” she says.

A horse performing in the hunters might need a diet low in nonstructural carbohydrates and higher fat to add “bloom,” whereas a horse that is racing or running advanced-level eventing might need more energy from carbohydrates. In general, carbohydrates provide “hotter” energy and might not be the best choice for a horse with a tendency to get excited or stressed, but they also provide excellent fuel for intense bouts of exercise, whereas fats might be a better choice for a horse with a hotter temperament that doesn’t need bursts of energy.

Supplementing Horses for Performance

Electrolytes help maintain fluid balance within the body by directing water and nutrients to the areas where they are needed most. Mottet stresses the need for electrolyte support in equine athletes. “The good-quality electrolytes have sodium chloride, or salt, as the No. 1 ingredient no matter what,” she says.

These products have other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium, in smaller proportions. She says if your horse isn’t sweating hard multiple times per week, a tablespoon of plain (iodized, unless the horse is on kelp-based supplements) table salt twice daily, along with free-choice salt in whatever form the horse will consume, can be plenty. Otherwise, choose a high-quality equine-specific electrolyte product to help keep your horse hydrated.

“Dehydration will decrease performance whether you realize it or not,” she says. Keep in mind that some horses will not drink electrolyte-infused water, so make sure fresh water is always available after exercise, and use alternative methods to feed these animals electrolytes, such as paste or powder forms.

Gastrointestinal support is also paramount in equine athletes. High-intensity exercise, high-starch diets, travel, and competition all contribute to stress that can make horses more prone to both foregut (stomach and small intestine) and hindgut (the cecum and large colon, or large intestine) problems.

First and foremost, Mottet recommends a veterinary evaluation with gastroscopy if an owner suspects a gastric ulcer issue. Nutritionally, however, owners can take several steps to reduce gastric distress. “No. 1 is consistency,” says Mottet. “Don’t change your hay on the road. No. 2 is continuous flow of fiber without (developing) obesity.”

Her last recommendation is to offer a couple of pounds of hay along with a gastric buffer product during tack-up. The hay creates a mat of fiber in the stomach, which will protect against acid splash during exercise and make the horse more comfortable in its work. Gastric buffer products temporarily raise the pH of the stomach to make the environment less acidic. While they won’t heal existing gastric ulcers, they can improve comfort during travel and exercise. For hindgut health Mottet encourages the use of prebiotic products to support the normal gut flora.

Of course, muscle development is critical for all equine athletes. Horses can’t perform without adequate muscle mass and strength. The body uses amino acids to create muscle tissue, and amino acids come from protein. But not all protein is created equal. “Horses don’t have protein requirements, they have amino acid requirements,” Mottet says. It is important to choose feeds with high-quality sources of protein, so the horse gets a good blend of essential amino acids. Whey, soybean meal, and alfalfa meal all contain excellent amino acid profiles, she adds.

High-quality amino acid supplements can be very beneficial for hard-working athletes that aren’t quite hitting where they need to be from a muscle mass standpoint. “You can’t push a horse past its genetic potential, but (these supplements) can give them that extra boost to help them get there,” Mottet says.

She stresses that these types of supplements don’t work instantaneously and recommends owners wait 40 to 50 days to assess their effects. Many equine protein supplement manufacturers focus on “branched chain amino acids,” which refer to three of the 10 essential amino acids for horses that have a “branched” molecular structure: valine, leucine, and isoleucine. These amino acids make up a significant portion of muscle, help prevent muscle breakdown, and also act as energy sources for muscles during exercise. For this reason, these supplements can be an effective way to add protein, especially for horses in sports such as racing and eventing. They are typically fed twice daily.

Vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage from free radicals, is a critical nutrient for neuromuscular support. Jane Manfredi, DVM, Dipl. ACVS-LA, ACVSMR (Equine), an assistant professor and researcher at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, notes that as veterinarians are beginning to recognize neuromuscular conditions more frequently in equine athletes, they can use vitamin E supplementation for more than just correcting deficiencies seen on blood tests. Horses that have access to green pasture likely have adequate levels of vitamin E, but without pasture many horses are low or deficient and can benefit from daily supplementation, even if they aren’t showing any clinical signs of disease.

“With seeing more EDM (equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy, which has its roots in a genetic predisposition compounded by a vitamin E deficiency and causes neurologic problems), there is a recognition that earlier supplementation can potentially prevent the career-ending EDM issues we are seeing during their later athletic years,” Manfredi says. Horses with “other muscle diseases like (myofibrillar myopathy, which involves disruption of muscle cell units and causes weakness and potentially inflammation) seem to benefit from higher levels of vitamin E administration even when blood levels are in the acceptable range. Supplementation at label rates could help our performance horses with minimal negatives.”

She also notes it’s important that owners feed bioavailable vitamin E supplements, such as liquid formulations the horse can absorb.

Look at the Whole Horse

Both Mottet and Manfredi agree that a critical approach to feeding performance horses is evaluating each horse as an ­individual—there is no “one-size-fits-all” performance diet or supplementation plan.

Mottet’s approach is to meet the horse’s nutritional and performance needs while also listening to the rider, taking into account the horse’s response to different feeds in the past and addressing concerns about appearance and behavior under saddle.

Manfredi stresses the importance of diagnosing metabolic disorders or neuromuscular diseases such as recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis and polysaccharide storage myopathy (both characterized by tying-up) before choosing a diet and supplements, as nutrition can greatly affect these conditions.

Feeding for our equine athlete partners’ optimal performance has become its own science, and owners of these hard-­working horses need to put nutrition front and center when developing management plans for them.

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Written by:

Jennifer Selvig, DVM, is an associate equine veterinarian at Cleary Lake Veterinary Hospital and the owner and manager of Stargazer Farm, an eventing and dressage barn in Lakeville, Minnesota.

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