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Feeding performance horses in 5 easy steps

July 12, 2021
performance horse

Feeding performance horses doesn't have to be complicated. Follow the steps below to balance your horse's diet and maximize performance.

Okay, let’s get real: While nutrition is one of the most important ways to influence any animal’s health, feeding horses is not rocket science, and we tend to overcomplicate equine nutrition.

While performance horses often have more specific nutrient requirements than the average horse at maintenance, all horses have the same general needs, and keeping it simple when it comes to feeding is the best method for reaching maximum horse health.

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 based on their exercise and training schedule.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it is important to take an honest inventory of your horse’s training regimen. The key word here is “honest” — but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

According to The Nutrient Requirements of Horses (NRC), there are four categories of activity level and intensity:

  • Light exercise: One to three hours per week of mostly walking and trotting.
  • Moderate exercise: Three to five hours per week of mostly trotting, with some walking and cantering and some skilled work, like jumping, dressage, cutting or ranch work.
  • Heavy exercise: Four to five hours per week of trotting, cantering, galloping and skilled work.
  • Very heavy exercise: One hour per week of speed work and/or six to 12 hours per week.

Generally, the only horses that fit into the “very heavy” category are racehorses, elite endurance horses or three-day-eventing horses, while most other horses fit into the light or moderate exercise 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. The reason it is important to be honest with yourself about your horse’s activity level is that if you have a horse in the light or moderate category who you unintentionally feed at the heavy or very heavy level, you will likely be at risk for overfeeding, which can have detrimental and debilitating health consequences for your horse.

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 winning formula for your horse.

2. Always, always, always start with hay (and a hay test).

Energy can be supplied in the diet by carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates fall into two categories: non-structural and structural.

Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) come from sugars and starches, primarily from grain concentrates. Most performance horses require some form of NSC, and while there is no reason to fear feeding sugar and starch — sometimes glucose is necessary! — they do tend to be more problematic for our equine friends. As such, it is important to limit the 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. Remember: A happy hindgut equals a happy horse.

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 a hay test, which will tell you the exact nutrient levels and help you determine which nutrients need to be added to the diet (based on equine requirements) in the form of grain and horse supplements.

We should also note that good-quality fat is an easy — and, often, safer — way to increase energy in a performance horse’s diet. Fats will be used by the horse’s body during aerobic exercise, which can help save the glucose from NSCs for high-intensity or long-duration exercise. 

3. Remember 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 could lose up to four gallons of sweat per hour! Additionally, 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 hugely 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 — lead to prolonged, excessive sweating, providing a high-quality electrolyte supplement with potassium, sodium and chloride is a very good idea.

4. Don’t overdo protein.

Many horse owners accidentally misunderstand how protein should be used in their horses’ diet. As mentioned above, adding energy (or extra calories) to the diet is done with carbohydrates or fat. While protein and, more specifically, levels of certain amino acids are required for growth, muscle and the maintenance of body systems, protein is an inefficient energy source.

Horses have 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.

In general, a protein deficiency is not common in most domestic horse diets; in fact, it is more common for protein to be fed in excess, which will end up as a waste product. If you begin to notice a heavy smell of ammonia in your horse’s stall, this is a telltale sign that you may be overfeeding protein.

5. Help minimize and manage stress.

It’s no secret that performance horses endure stress. What we sometimes forget, however, is that this stress can impact almost every system in an animal’s body, from its digestive system to its musculoskeletal system. A well-rounded approach to managing performance horses includes taking all of these systems into consideration.

  • 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 — not to mention that they help promote normal nervous system function and a healthy immune system.
  • Gut health: The stress that performance horses are subject to in the forms of training, travel, new environments and more can absolutely 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 and maximize safe feedings, travels and training days.

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 an equine nutritionist.

Alltech’s new line of premium equine supplements was formulated to assist with that balance. Lifeforce Elite Performance was designed to be the only horse supplement you’ll need in a performance setting to promote a healthy, whole-body stress response. We are certain that you will get your money’s worth — and your horse will also be able to tell the difference!

Check out Lifeforce here, and follow us on social media @lifeforcehorse for more tips on keeping your performance horse healthy and happy!


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