Much like human athletes, performance horses have special nutritional needs. And with all athletes, it’s important for diets to match activity and athletic level, to reach the highest level of achievement.
“These six tips may help you to supply your horse with adequate energy to support optimal performance,” says Katie Young, PhD, an equine nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition.
1. Know if your horse is performing anaerobic or aerobic exercise.
Physical activity is broken into two general categories—aerobic and anaerobic—and it can be helpful to understand the science.
Anaerobic exercise, characterized by short bursts of maximum effort, is primarily fueled by glycogen, a polysaccharide which is composed of sugars and stored in muscle fibers. Soluble carbohydrates from the diet provide the building blocks for glycogen.
Imagine a competitive cutting horse with agility, quick reactions and strength. A horse like this would be primarily engaged in anaerobic exercise while they’re working a cow. Racehorses, even Thoroughbreds running a mile and a half, are also highly anaerobic while they’re running. Such activity depends on a diet providing adequate soluble carbohydrates for storing and replenishing muscle glycogen needed to fuel these short, intense exercise bouts.
Aerobic exercise, characterized by low- to moderate-intensity activity lasting several minutes to several hours, is primarily fueled by fat. A slow-burning fuel, fat can be perfect for keeping the horse going for the long haul.
Three-day eventing, polo, dressage, and endurance riding are all examples of primarily aerobic activity. Performance horses engaged in this type of exercise may benefit from feeds with added fat sources.
Keep in mind, however, that no performance activity is either all anaerobic or all aerobic. Each athletic activity has components of both types of work, especially when you consider the warm-up period before an actual competition. However, fueling the horse with the dietary energy source from which they will draw the most fuel is a targeted way to optimize the horse’s ability to perform.
2. Base the diet on forage, but supplement as needed.
While horses in nature might live entirely on forage, equestrians typically demand more from their horses than would ever be required of them in nature. Therefore, additional nutrients and energy are needed to sustain top-level performance in working horses.
Forage can provide adequate fuel for maintenance or low-level activity, but probably will not supply enough sugar and starch to maintain the glycogen stores required for a hard-working performance horse to succeed.
“For horses working at a high level, a feed designed to support that workload will provide adequate soluble carbohydrates and fats to maintain the needed fuel storage for performance,” says Young.
3. Employ electrolytes.
Horses need free choice salt, but performance horses have additional mineral requirements. “Any time a horse is working and sweating, consider an electrolyte supplement and feed as directed,” says Young.
Check the ingredients on electrolytes—they should include primarily sodium, potassium, and chloride. Also, always ensure your performance horse has adequate access to fresh, clean water and is well-hydrated. Do not give an electrolyte supplement to a dehydrated horse.
4. Time the feed.
Horses should not be fed large concentrate meals three to four hours before an extensive performance event. Feeding any closer to the exercise can hurt the horse’s performance as the blood used for digestion isn’t readily available to the muscle tissue.
If a horse usually has hay available, consider feeding small amounts of hay throughout the day. Feeding forages before an event might not pose the same challenges as a concentrated feed does. Generally speaking, feeding small meals more often is better for the performance horse than one or two large meals a day.
After the event, let the horse cool down before feeding and then consider feeding a small carbohydrate-rich meal 30 minutes to two hours after exercise to help replace the glycogen used during the event.
5. Focus on recovery.
Recovery from exercise requires the glycogen stores to be replenished and the muscle cells damaged during exercise to be repaired. Research in humans and horses has shown that ingesting specific amino acids after exercise can decrease muscle recovery time.
6. Rethink top-dressing.
Horse owners often try to provide additional fat to their performance horses. However, simply top-dressing with oil or an unfortified fat supplement increases the fat and calorie content of the ration, but it doesn’t provide protein, vitamins, or minerals to maintain the nutritional balance of the total diet. Consider feeding a nutritionally balanced feed with a high fat content as well as the proper amount of protein, amino acids, and other nutrients essential to support optimal performance.
“Paying attention to these six areas may help your working horse achieve its true performance potential,” says Young.