Part 1: The Big Picture and Macronutrients.
Workhorses. Athletes. Performance Horses. Sporthorses.
There are many terms used to describe the horses that carry us to winning rounds. No matter how you describe your horse, to help your horse perform their best, nutrition matters! If you’ve been wondering what to feed a performance horse, we’ve got you covered.
Horses’ nutritional needs are defined by their workload, along with other factors such as age and weight. The National Research Council (commonly abbreviated to NRC) defines work as the following:
|Light||1-3 hours per week; 40% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter||Recreational riding, start of training programs, occasional competition|
|Moderate||3-5 hours per week; 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% skill work (low jumping, cutting, etc.)||School horses, recreational riding, frequent competition|
|Heavy||4-5 hours per week; 20% walk, 50% trot, 15% canter, 15% gallop, jumping or other skill work||Ranch work, polo, frequent and strenuous competition|
|Intense||Varies; ranges from 1 hour/week of speed work to 6-12 hours/week of slow work||Racing, Endurance, Elite 3-day events|
This is all important for feeding because workload is tied to both energy and nutrient requirements.
As a horse’s workload increases, their energy requirements increase. However, when we look at nutritional requirements (i.e., protein and vitamins), these nutrients don’t always increase completely proportionately to increasing caloric needs. Therefore, it’s important to feed a performance feed that is designed for horses in work, since it will be formulated to meet the needs of an exercising horse.
No matter what discipline you participate in, once you get to the upper levels, the difference between taking home a check or not is very, very small. At this point, you need precision nutrition to truly get the most out of your horse.
How should you feed your performance horse?
As always, Forage First.
If your horse can work at a moderate or heavy load on hay and ration balancer alone, great! It is always best to get as many calories from forage as possible into your horse.
If this is not enough for them, there are several steps you can take to increase caloric intake:
- Increase the quality of your horse’s hay to increase the energy density, so that they’ll consume more calories with the same amount of hay. Two common ways to accomplish this are to:
- Mix in alfalfa
- Look for a lower-maturity grass hay
- Add a performance horse feed, or other formula designed for active horses. These formulas are usually available as either a pelleted or a textured formula. One is not automatically better than the other, this will depend on both horse and human preference.
Okay, your horse is maintaining their weight, but do they have enough fuel to run a barrel race or make it through multiple stadium jumping rounds? Optimizing performance isn’t as simple as maintaining weight. Nutrient requirements must be met at both specific levels and balanced in relation to each other. Horses have requirements for both macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Let’s dive deeper into the specifics, starting with energy sources. The two key sources of energy are carbohydrates and fat.
Carbohydrates are divided into two categories, structural and nonstructural.
Structural carbohydrates consist of both insoluble fiber (mainly found in grasses and legumes) and soluble fiber (high in ingredients such as beet pulp and soybean hulls). Soluble fiber is awesome, because it contains as much digestible energy as oats, but because the hindgut microbiome is primed to digest it, is a much safer source of calories. Performance feeds that contain high amounts of beet pulp like Sales Prep and Performance Textured are calorically dense AND easy on the digestive system. Don’t just take our word for this—researchers in France evaluated the effects of diet on performance and hindgut health in French Trotters1. They looked at a hay only diet, a high starch diet (55% hay and 45% barley), and a high soluble fiber diet (50% hay, 21% barley, and 29% beet pulp). They found greater volatile fatty acid levels (VFAs are what bacteria produce to fuel the horse) in the high soluble fiber diet compared to the high starch diet, indicated that the hindgut microbiome contained more “fiber-digesting” bugs. This means beet pulp helps limit hindgut dysbiosis (disruption to the microflora) while still providing enough energy for working.
Nonstructural carbohydrates consist of starches and sugars that are broken down in the foregut (stomach & small intestine) instead of the hindgut. They are easily digested and absorbed, providing a quick source of energy. Feeds higher in NSC can get a bad rap, because “they aren’t what horses eat in the wild” but it is important to remember that horses running barrels or jumping and galloping over cross-country courses are working a lot harder than their wild counterparts. Not only that, but glucose is also the preferred energy source for both horses and humans. It is necessary for normal function throughout the horse’s body. Glucose is stored in the horse’s muscle cells as glycogen, which is responsible for most of the exercise horses perform.
I used to run cross country in high school, and we would “carb-load” the night before races with a spaghetti supper. Can we do the same thing to horses? Unfortunately, carbohydrate loading for horses is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst—overloading the horse’s GI tract with excess starch can lead to some serious issues including colic, hindgut acidosis, and laminitis. Fortunately, it is not necessary because horses have evolved to be super machines at storing glycogen in their muscles. What this means is that you should pick the appropriate feed to fuel your horse and stick with a routine.
What if you still want to limit starch but need added energy? Try fats.
Fat is 2.25 times more energy dense than carbohydrates. This allows us to dramatically increase the calories in a pound of grain without increasing volume. Researchers have demonstrated that with the proper adaptation period (between five and twelve weeks), fat has a “glycogen-sparing” effect. This means that the horse will use fat as fuel during exercise, allowing muscles to work longer and harder without burning through their glycogen reserves as quickly as they would on a lower fat diet.
I’ve heard people refer to fat as a cool energy source. What does that mean? This is an accurate statement; however, it is not related to behavior or disposition as some think. Let’s back up for a minute. We know that hay is for horses, but perhaps it is more accurate to say, “fiber is for friendly microbes.” When fiber is digested in the hindgut, heat is produced. Therefore, feeding more hay in the winter is the best way to keep them warm. Fat is digested in the foregut (specifically, the small intestine), and does not raise internal temperature.
The most common fats we include in performance horse feeds are oils and flax seed. Flaxseed has the added benefit of being an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are an essential nutrient that contribute to the overall health of your horse in many ways including functioning as an anti-inflammatory compound. Looking for a high-fat feed like Performance Textured will be the easiest and least messy way to increase the fat in your horse’s diet. If you want to add fat to your horse’s feed, canola oil is cost-effective and efficient because it is 100% fat. Other options include flaxseed, chia seeds, and rice bran. If you choose to add rice bran, you should take care to ensure that it is balanced with calcium as plain rice bran is very high in phosphorous and can throw off the ratios in the total diet.
Many horse owners, especially those with performance horses, tend to focus a little too much on protein. What can be misunderstood though, compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein is a very inefficient energy source. Instead, protein is essential because it provides amino acids, which are required for growth, muscle development and maintenance, and other body systems. In years past, horsemen would often mistakenly focus on an overall percentage of protein in the diet (aka “horses need 12% protein). The more correct way to feed your horse is to look at grams of total protein in the diet and grams of specific amino acids such as lysine and methionine. It’s generally uncommon to have a protein deficiency, but it is still really important to consider the quality of the protein. It is surprisingly easy to artificially inflate a feed’s protein content using cheap protein sources that are unavailable to the horse. As a horse owner, you should be looking for highly digestible sources including alfalfa and soybean meal, such as our pelleted line of feeds including performance and our ration balancer. Soybean meal is thought to have the most compatible amino acid profile with the horse’s requirements.
Stay tuned for our next post where we’ll discuss vitamins, minerals, and how to get that extra edge!
Looking for more help with your performance horse’s diet? Drop us a note here and we’ll be in touch!
As always, see you at the barn!
1Grimm, P., V. Julliand, S. Julliand. 2021. 67 Partial substitution of cereals with sugar beet pulp and hindgut health in horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 100:103530. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103530