It’s important not to overcomplicate equine nutrition. While performance horses often have more specific nutrient requirements than the average riding horse, all horses have the same general needs, and keeping it simple when it comes to feeding is the best method for achieving optimal health and wellness.
Here, we will break it down step by step so that you can make sure your horses receive exactly what they need.
1. Determine your horses’ energy needs.
First and foremost, it’s important to take an honest inventory of your horse’s training regimen.
According to the National Research Council (NRC), there are four categories of activity level and intensity:
- Light exercise: 1-3 hours per week of mostly walking and trotting.
- Moderate exercise: 3-5 hours per week of mostly trotting, with some walking and cantering and some skilled work.
- Heavy exercise: 4-5 hours per week of trotting, cantering, galloping or skilled work.
- Very heavy exercise: 1 hour per week of speed work and/or 6-12 hours per week of slower work.
Generally, the only horses that fit into the “very heavy” category are racehorses, endurance horses or elite 3-day eventing horses, while most others fit into the light or moderate categories.
It’s very easy for us to overestimate our horses’ workload. Keep in mind that modern horses evolved from animals who often traveled 40 to 50 miles per day! They had to really work for their meals, which is not the case for domestic horses.
You may be surprised to learn that some horses who do light to moderate exercise do not require energy in amounts much higher than what is needed for maintenance. On the other hand, some performance horses require up to twice as much energy as a horse at maintenance. It’s all about taking each individual animal’s unique blend of genetics, age and metabolism into account, as well as their exercise intensity and duration. A qualified equine nutritionist can help you determine the right nutrition regimen for your horse.
2. Always evaluate your hay.
Energy can be supplied in the diet by carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates fall into two categories: structural and non-structural.
Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) come from sugars and starches, which are found primarily in grain concentrates. Most performance horses require some form of NSC, though it is important to limit NSCs in the diet to what the horse really needs based on its age and exercise intensity.
Structural carbohydrates, on the other hand, include fiber from forage sources and are one of the most critical components in making sure that the horse’s hindgut functions optimally.
The large intestine in the horse’s digestive tract is home to billions of beneficial microbes that digest fiber and produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which are used as a source of energy. This is the reason why hay alone can meet the energy requirements of some horses. Fiber helps keep the large intestine at the correct pH balance and greatly reduces the risk of colic. After all, forage is what horses were designed to eat and should always be fed at a minimum of 1% of the animal’s body weight per day. The forage component of a horse’s diet also takes pasture grasses into account, so be sure to factor in how much turnout your horse receives.
If you are feeding performance horses, invest in hay tests, which will determine exact nutrient levels and help you ascertain which additional nutrients need to be added to the diet in the form of grain or supplements.
3. Consider the importance of water and salts.
While these nutrients are often overlooked, adequate access to fresh, clean water and iodized salt is crucial for all animals, but especially for performance horses.
When exercised in hot, humid weather, horses can lose up to 4 gallons of sweat per hour! Horse sweat is hypertonic, meaning that it contains higher levels of electrolytes than what is circulating in the body. Human sweat, in contrast, is hypotonic, meaning that there is a higher concentration of electrolytes circulating in the body than what is in our sweat. This means that giving a sweaty horse plain water will only further dilute the concentration of electrolytes in its body. Given that electrolytes are required to maintain the fluid balance and electrical activity of each cell, they are tremendously important for performance!
In normal circumstances when a horse is only emitting small amounts of sweat, an iodized white salt block or loose salt, in addition to hay and grain, will do the trick. If weather and exercise — or some other form of stress, like long-distance travel — leads to prolonged, excessive sweating, providing a high-quality electrolyte supplement with potassium, sodium and chloride is a very good idea.
4. Don’t overdo it on protein.
Many horse owners misunderstand how protein should be used in their horses’ diet. Adding energy/extra calories to the diet should be done with carbohydrates or fat. While protein is required for growth, muscle and body system maintenance, protein is a relatively inefficient energy source.
Horses do have specific requirements for essential amino acids, the most important of which are lysine, methionine and threonine. This is another reason why investing in a hay test will help you to balance your performance horse’s diet.
Horses doing light work can often meet their protein requirements (approximately 10% of their diet) from hay and pasture and the use of a ration balancer. Horses doing moderate to heavy work have higher protein requirements, which can typically be met with commercially fortified grain and/or the addition of alfalfa hay.
5. Help minimize and manage stress.
While we know performance horses endure stress, we can forget its ability to impact nearly every system in an animal’s body. As such, managing performance horses includes taking several things into account, including:
- Joint and hoof health: The concussion and force that a performance horse’s limbs must endure is substantial. Providing joint-specific nutrients, like glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, and hoof nutrients, like organic zinc and biotin, can help protect joints and hooves before damage occurs.
- Antioxidants: Vitamin E and organic selenium are hugely important components in the performance horse’s diet to help combat muscle damage from the free radicals associated with exercise and metabolism.
- Immune function: Organic trace minerals are important constituents of joint and hoof health. They also help promote normal nervous system function and a healthy immune system.
- Gut health: The stress that performance horses are subject to — typically in the forms of training, travel and new environments — can impact their microbiome and cause digestive upset. Additionally, the need for glucose (i.e., NSCs) to power exercise is a reality for many performance horses. Gut nutrients, such as pre- and probiotics, can help minimize digestive distress.
The key to feeding performance horses is moderation. No one ingredient or nutrient is beneficial when there is either a deficiency or an excess. Use common sense, pay attention to your horse’s behavior and cues, and seek balance with the help of a qualified equine nutritionist.
Alltech’s line of premium equine supplements have been formulated to assist with balance in the equine diet. Lifeforce Elite Performance was designed to be the only horse supplement you’ll need to promote a healthy, whole-body stress response.