Feeding performance horses well is not rocket science, but the results can blow you out of this world!
The nutritional requirements of performance horses vary over the year, as the horse moves from spelling into light pre-season work and then into harder work.
Feeding during a break from work
In most equestrian events, performance athletes are given some time off each year to ‘spell.’ This is time for muscles and joints to recover and for your horse to unwind mentally and ‘just be a horse’. Ideally horses will be spelling at pasture living in a herd, or with access to other horses they can touch over a fence.
The first step in feeding a spelling horse is to provide as much roughage as they want to eat, unless the horse is overweight. At least 70 per cent of roughage should be grass or grass hay and the remainder can be lucerne, clover or oaten/wheaten hay or chaff. If the pasture or hay is good quality, with lots of leaf and few stems, it will probably provide all your horse’s protein requirements. Horses grazing mature pastures that have dried off and contain more stalks and seed heads than leaf will need leafy grass hay and lucerne to lift their protein intake.
Your performance athlete won’t need as much hard feed when spelling as he or she needs to eat during the competition season. Only feed as much hard feed as is necessary to maintain the ideal body condition. For some horses, grass and hay will provide enough calories whilst harder keepers will continue to need some hard feed to prevent weight loss. The amount of hard feed needed during a spell may vary over time due to changes in pasture quality and quantity.
It’s necessary to add vitamins, minerals and small amounts of fatty acids to complement the roughage and hard feed. Even the best pasture and hay in the world will leave your horse mineral deficient. Zinc, copper, iodine, selenium and Vitamins B and E are almost always deficient in an unfortified diet. Minerals must also be in balance with each other. Even when a diet provides enough of every mineral, if the ratios between them are incorrect, your horse’s body won’t be able to get enough to satisfy its mineral requirements. Equine Vit&Min supplements are scientifically formulated to top up and balance critical ratios in horse diets. Farmalogic offers a free diet analysis service to help you identify which, if any, supplements are needed for optimum dietary balance.
Vitamin shortages are most common when hay or grains form a large part of the diet because vitamins are most abundant in fresh plants. Hind gut microbes are also responsible for manufacturing B group vitamins, biotin and vitamin K for their host (your horse) to utilise.
Feeding Performance Horses Pre-Season
As you begin to bring your horse back into work after a spell, you’ll need to make changes to the diet. Performance horses usually come back into training at a work load defined as ‘light work’ for at least a few weeks and will gradually increase to higher work levels as the competition season approaches.
The amount of work your horse performs directly affects his or her nutritional requirements. The NRC (National Research Council) defines weekly workloads to help owners and nutritionists ensure that horses are fed appropriately, according to their daily nutritional needs for their work level.
Defining your horse’s workload
- A horse not being ridden or lunged can be defined as a horse at ‘maintenance’ or ‘rest’ or ‘spelling’. Some nutritionists even define whether the unworked horse has a high or low level of activity (depending on the paddock size and temperament of the horse).
- A horse in light work performs 1 – 3 hours per week: 40% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter. This could include horses used for recreational (trail or pleasure) riding, working ponies, horses during the early stages of training or beginning breaking in or show horses given occasional work.
- A horse in moderate work is performs 3 – 5 hours per week: 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% low jumps or other skill work. This could include horses used for recreational (trail) riding, beginning training/breaking, show horses, dressage, campdraft, polo or polocrosse, stock work, cutting horses, showjumpers and low level eventers.
- Hard work is defined when a horse performs 4-5 hours per week: 20% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter, 15% gallop, jumping or other skill work. This could include stock horses, polo, high level dressage & show jumping, medium level eventing, race training.
- Very Heavy work is performed by racehorses, elite 3 day eventers and endurance horses. Their work varies – it can be 1 hour per week speed work or 6 – 12 hours per week of slow work. Their average heartbeat will be in the range 110 – 150 bpm.
If your horse is still grazing quality pasture as you begin light work, you may not need to make many changes to the diet. If you bring your horse into a stable or yard environment for pre-season training, make sure you provide free choice access to quality grass hay to maintain optimal gut health.
Monitor body condition carefully and if your horse begins to lose weight give more calories by increasing the amount of hard feed.
Your horse’s mineral requirements in light work are virtually the same as for spelling, but when you feed more hay and workload increases, you’ll need to add a broad spectrum vitamin supplement and an omega-3 source such as EVM Omega-3 PLUS or Farmalogic Omega Balancer.
If you use pre-mixed hard feeds, these will contain some vitamins and minerals but often horses in pre-season work don’t need a full serve of feed, so you’ll need to top up with a balancer supplement.
Feeding Competing Performance Horses
Feeding your performance horse properly can mean the difference between winning and losing – it could mean a faster round, better focus, more expressive movement, fewer errors and faster recovery for the next race, round or event. Correct nutrition for equine athletes is essential to allow them to perform at their peak, recover faster and remain healthy for more competition seasons.
Am I feeding enough?
At higher workloads, horses need more calories to fuel their performance. Their recommended daily intake increases from 2 per cent of bodyweight to 2.5 per cent, and most performance horses need more hard feed to maintain condition. The amount of hard feed needed can vary significantly between individuals, from as little as 500 grams for an easy-keeper on quality hay or pasture to up to 6 kg for a hard keeper eating low calorie forage. It’s normal to need to tweak the amount of hard feed to maintain your horse in optimal body condition, but always make sure your horse enough leafy hay or pasture before increasing hard feeds.
Vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats
The harder a horse works, the higher its need for vitamins and minerals. For example, a 500 kg horse not in work needs at least 20 g of calcium a day increasing to 30 g/day for light work and up to 40 g/day for heavy work. Similar trends exist for other key minerals such as phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chloride. The requirement for sulphur, copper, cobalt, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc increases with work, but not to the same extent. For example, a spelling 500 kg horse needs 100 mg/day of copper increasing to 125 mg when in heavy work.
A well-balanced pre-mixed hard feed may provide your performance horse with all the vitamins and minerals needed, when fed at the amount recommended by the manufacturer. However, if fed at a reduced rate, or if the mineral content isn’t a good complement to your forage mineral levels, a mineral balancer will also be needed.
Choose a mineral supplement carefully to balance the forage and hard feed in your horse’s diet. The National Research Council (NRC) defined mineral requirements are the minimum amount needed to avoid a deficiency, and in most cases, the optimal requirement is higher. Therefore it is acceptable to provide more minerals than the recommended daily intake (RDI), but mineral levels must be carefully balanced. Some minerals compete with each other at absorption points in the digestive system, meaning that mineral deficiencies can occur even when you feed the daily recommended intake.
Fresh pasture is a natural source of many of the vitamins and oils that horses need. However, pasture plants mown for hay-making lose omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins as they begin to dry out. Hay contains similar mineral and omega-6 fatty acid levels to the pasture grass it was cut from, but is low in vitamins and has no omega-3s.
To function at their peak, equine athletes need additional B group vitamins, and vitamins A, D, C and E when compared to their requirements during a spell. Although horses manufacture vitamin C in their liver and rely on their gut microbes to make B-group vitamins, performance horses benefit from a multi-vitamin supplement to provide the higher levels of vitamins needed for hard work.
Since most performance horses rely on hay to meet their forage requirements due to limited access to or overgrazed pasture, and their nutritional requirements are higher than when spelling, they also need an omega-3 supplement. This needs to contain at least 3 times more omega-3 than omega-6 to balance the high omega-6 intake of performance horses. We recommend Farmalogic Omega Balancer, a palatable and stable omega-3 supplement which is even more potent than linseeds or oils due to the DHA/EPA content from marine-sourced omega-3. Omega Balancer is a dry meal that stores safely without need for refrigeration. It can be added to feeds ahead of time to suit the needs of owners working late or relying on others to feed. With a standard serve as low as 30g/day, it’s never been cheaper or easier to give your horses enough omega-3 oil to balance their omega-6 intake.
Hard working horses have a higher requirement for antioxidants. Adding an antioxidant supplement such as Farmalogic Melox helps to prevent oxidative stress and aids recovery after strenuous exercise.
The stress of hard work, transport and competition also impacts on the health of the equine athlete’s gut microbial population, often leading to loss of appetite and reduced performance. Live yeast probiotics and prebiotic supplements that help to support gut microbes during stress help to keep performance horses in optimum health.
The electrolytes sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium are responsible for maintaining the acid-base and water balances in the body. They need to be consumed daily because they are not stored in organs for replenishment during times of deficiency.
Performance horses need a maintenance requirement of between 7 to 12 grams of plain salt (sodium chloride) per 100kg of bodyweight every day, even when spelling. Plain salt is sold under the names of stock, flossy, table and pool salt. There’s no need to pay extra for the pink coloured salts, because the amount of trace minerals they contain are insignificantly small compared to your horse’s requirements. Remember to count any salt included in hard feeds and supplements when calculating how much salt to add to your horse’s hard feed. It is safe to add the lower recommended amount of salt to the feed and offer free choice salt (clean loose salt in a bucket kept under cover) so your horse can top up when required.
During hot weather, transport and after work, additional electrolytes should be fed to replace those lost in sweat. Choose a low sugar supplement formulated to replenish the electrolytes lost in sweat. Farmalogic Replenish Electrolytes are scientifically formulated to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat and give a boost of leucine to ‘switch on’ normal muscle repair mechanisms following exercise.
Electrolytes (especially sodium and chloride) contribute to thirst inducing mechanisms in horses which encourages rehydration. A dehydrated horse without enough sodium in the blood will not know it needs to drink more water and will instead excrete potassium. Therefore electrolyte supplements should only be provided to a horse who began exercise already in a good sodium balance.
A well-trained horse fed a correctly balanced diet can develop strength, muscle and fitness, and perform and recover better than one trained on a poorly balanced diet. Correct nutrition helps to optimize the function of the circulatory, digestive, nervous and respiratory systems through to the maintenance of joints, bone, hoof and muscle tissue to help keep your equine athlete performing for many years.