5 Tips for Packing the Pounds on Performance Horses

Does your performance horse need to pack on a few more pounds? Here are some tips to consider when managing a hard-keeping equine athlete.

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feeding performance horses
Check to ensure your horse is consuming enough feed for his weight and his workload; if he's not, he might just need some more groceries. | Photo: iStock

Does your performance horse need to pack on a few more pounds? Here are some tips to consider when managing a hard-keeping equine athlete.

Which Horses are in This Category?

The National Research Council (NRC) calculates the digestible energy (DE) requirements for equine athletes by adding together the energy required for maintenance (the energy needed to fuel respiration, digestion, and other bodily functions) and that needed for exercise. The NRC recommends DE requirements for performance horses based on the intensity of their work:

  • Horses in light work (one to three hours of riding per week) should consume about 20 Mcal DE per day. Horses in this group include “weekend warriors” or recreational trail mounts.
  • Horses in moderate work (three to five hours of work per week, with some skill work such as jumping or cutting) require about 23.3 Mcal DE per day. Horses in this category include show horses, polo ponies, and ranch horses.
  • Horses in heavy work (four to five hours of riding per week, with substantial portions spent at the canter or doing skill work) need about 26.6 Mcal DE per day. Horses in this category include low- to mid-level eventers, some racehorses, and frequently shown horses.
  • Finally, horses in very heavy work (six to 12 hours of work per week) require roughly 34.5 Mcal DE daily. These are racehorses, elite three-day eventers, and combined driving horses.

The average sized horse on a maintenance diet, on the other hand, requires just 16.7 Mcal DE each day.

While there’s not one ideal body condition score for all performance horses, researchers know from human medicine that excessive body weight can place extra stress on bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments. Conversely, too little body weight can negatively affect performance by reducing the amount of energy reserves available to work. Depending on fitness level and exercise intensity, many performance horses range from 3 to 5 on the body condition scale.

If your horse does need more weight, consider the following to help him pack on the pounds:

1. More please!

If you’re feeding a commercial product, compare the recommended feeding rate on the tag or bag to what you’re currently feeding. Feeding rates are the amount of feed per day needed to meet the horse’s requirements and are usually given in a range based on the horse’s weight and exercise level. So check to ensure your horse is consuming enough feed for his weight and his workload; if he’s not, he might just need some more groceries.

If he is consuming an appropriate amount, you still might need to increase his rations to the amount suggested for adding weight. If your horse’s feeding rate is already at the top of the recommended rates, consider switching to a more calorie-dense feed, such as one designed specifically for performance horses.

2. High-Quality Hay

Take a close look at your horse’s forage sources to evaluate their quality and how much you’re feeding. Performance horses must consume at very least 1% of their body weight in forage to maintain hindgut health, and often times hard-working horses require more forage to maintain their weight. Depending on the level and type of work, your equine athlete might not be able to consume enough average-quality grass forage to meet his calorie needs. In these cases, you might need to find and feed better quality hay, such as a legume (alfalfa) or grass-legume mixed hay. Also, consider adding an alternate fiber source—such as beet pulp, hay cubes, or fiber pellets—to help boost weight.

3. Fuel Sources

Products used in equine diets for increasing carbohydrate (sugar and starch) concentration include corn and oats. Feeding these grains alone without balancing the total diet, however, could lead to nutrient imbalances. So consider a commercially available product that is already formulated and balanced. If you’re currently feeding such a product but your horse is not gaining weight, consider switching to a more calorie-dense product.

Adding fat sources—such as rice bran, flax seed, and vegetable oil—is a great way to increase calorie content without drastically increasing in the amount of feed your horse consumes. As an added perk, researchers have shown that some fats have other benefits for performance horses, including increased stamina, decreased lactic acid production (which can contribute to muscle fatigue), decreased recovery time, and improved skin and coat condition.

4. Slow it Down

Reducing the number of days you ride, the length of time spent riding, or the intensity level of your horse’s training sessions can give him the break he needs to put on weight. By reducing calorie expenditure without changing the diet, your horse can use more calories for weight gain.

5. Check for Tummy Troubles

Between 40-90% of performance horses have gastric ulcers. The clinical signs include poor appetite and abdominal pain after feed ingestion, and most likely will affect athletic performance. To minimize the nutritional factors that could promote ulcer development, feed smaller, more frequent meals; reduce the calories from starch and sugar; increase calories from fat; and ensure you’re feeding an adequate amount of forage. Your veterinarian can check for and treat ulcers if you suspect your horse could have them.

If questions arise when feeding your performance horse, consider consulting a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to ensure your horse consumes an appropriate diet.


Written by:

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen has been a performance horse nutritionist for an industry feed manufacturer for more than a decade. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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