Nutrition for Show Horses

Focusing on consistent and balanced nutrition will help reduce your horse’s stress levels at shows.

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Quarter Horse halter class at horse show
High-quality nutrition will help your horse perform to their full potential. | Kevin Thompson/The Horse

Q: I plan on traveling to several shows with my new Quarter Horse this spring and summer. What can I do for her nutritionally before and during show season to minimize the stress of traveling and being in a new environment at shows? – via email

A: Nutrition is the foundation of success for your equine athlete, and there are several nutritional factors to consider for reducing the stressors of show season. 

Practice the basics.

Horses evolved eating multiple small meals and grazing up to 18 hours per day. Additionally, they need to consume at least 1.2% of their body weight in forage to maintain proper gastrointestinal function and motility. Start with forage as the foundation of your horse’s diet and add concentrate only as needed to meet energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements. If it’s possible, safe, and appropriate, offer hay while trailering to and from shows. While at shows, utilize hay bags or nets at the trailer and in the stall to give your horse the option for constant and consistent forage consumption, which in turn can reduce anxiety and other digestive disturbances.

Start with high-quality nutrition.

Provide your horse with the most appropriate and high-quality forage and concentrate to ensure she can perform to her potential. Inadequate nutrition results in increased stress, reduced performance, and other deficiency indicators such as loss of body condition score and muscle mass. Your show horse’s workload may have increased from what it was prior to or at the start of showing, so adjust her diet as needed to meet her nutritional requirements.

Be consistent with your feeding routine.

You have probably noticed that your horse is a creature of habit and deviating from her normal schedule results in stress behaviors. You should feed close to the same time every day, within a range of a couple of hours, and stick to those feeding times both at home and on the road. This will help your horse feel more comfortable knowing she doesn’t have to worry about the timing of her next meal, but it also gives you a little flexibility if you find yourself competing around mealtime.

Stay on the same nutritional plan at shows as you have at home.

It may be tempting to give your horse a little extra feed while at the show, but you should not alter feed type or amount. Be sure to bring plenty of your own hay and concentrate, and don’t start new supplements at the show. If you think you will need to feed an extra supplement, start it at home to ensure your horse will eat it and to avoid gastrointestinal disturbance at the show.

Don’t forget about water.

Horse owners sometimes overlook water intake, but water is the most vital nutrient your equine athlete consumes. Occasionally stressed horses, especially those in new or strange environments, refuse to drink. Even the seasoned veteran may refuse water if it tastes different from what is available at home. This can lead to poor performance, dehydration, or other major health concerns. Bringing water from home, using a water filter, or adding  flavoring to the water can help eliminate issues with water consumption. If you do use a flavoring or filter, have your horse try it before you begin traveling and showing. Water should also be offered to horses at least every six hours when hauling long distances.

Offer support.

Assess your horse throughout the season for signs of stress, address any nutritional concerns, and adjust her diet as needed. Horses traveling and competing have an increased risk of developing gastric ulcers. Supplementing them with a product that buffers gastric contents during meals, prior to exercise, and while on the show trail can help prevent gastric discomfort. Your horse should have daily access to salt, which is important for body fluid equilibrium and triggering her thirst response. In some cases, especially after intense work or sweating, you can also give electrolytes to speed up muscle recovery and replace lost electrolytes. Other products such as those that support muscle development and recovery, immune function, and gut health can be beneficial for show horses. Look for products with results backed by research in horses.

Horse show season is an exciting time and, as in every sport, we want to make sure we are considering every angle to gain that competitive edge. Ensuring you provide the right nutrition for your horse’s needs and keep a consistent nutritional management plan is essential to managing stress during the show season.

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Written by:

Masa Williams, MS, PhD, says her lifelong love of horses and her insatiable need to ask “why” led her down the path to becoming an equine nutritionist. Prior to joining Land O’ Lakes, Williams spent 10 years as an equine specialist with Ohio State University Extension and teaching equine classes at The Ohio State University. In her current role Masa enjoys working with team members in research, formulation, manufacturing, and sales to bring the highest quality product available to customers and their horses. Masa says she can think of no better place to be where she can combine her passion for horses, teaching, and applied nutrition. Masa earned her BS in animal science from the University of Arkansas, her MS in animal nutrition from the University of Kentucky, and her PhD in animal nutrition from The Ohio State University. Masa’s doctorate research focused on the effects of energy source and amount on nutrient digestibility and prediction of digestible energy in horses.

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