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Feeding the performance horse from riding club to elite level November 29 2017

Feeding performance horses can be a challenge.

Requirements for individual horses will vary according to factors such as body weight, condition score, discipline (e.g. endurance, racing eventing and dressage), environmental factors and rider ability etc. However, the common factor for all performance horses is that they will train and compete under a variety of stressful conditions that can adversely affect health and performance. For these reasons, there are important feeding and management strategies that can be implemented, which are of critical importance to reduce many of these problems, whatever level a horse is competing at.

Feeding management affects many different aspects of equine health and performance, including gastrointestinal function, hydration, electrolyte status, and substrate selection during exercise. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the important strategies that could ensure that you have a successful season ahead in 2017- 2018.

  • Regularly monitor and record your horse's body weight and body condition score. This enables you to accurately calculate your horse's nutritional requirements for performance and can help you to achieve optimum competition body weight or 'fighting weight'.

  • Fibre (hay, haylage and pasture) should ALWAYS form the basis of any horse's diet. It is often overlooked and a lack of fibre will increase the incidence of gastric ulcers, wood chewing, loose droppings, loss of weight and irritability. It is currently recommended that performance horses should receive a minimum of 1.2% of their body weight (BW) per day of forage to satisfy its requirements for long stem fibre and to minimize digestive upsets, although ideally forage intake should be in the region of 1.5-2% of BW and more if you are feeding haylage.

  • Many feed companies offer a forage analysis service for a small fee and this enables a more accurate feeding programme to be devised based on the nutrient value of the forage. I also recommend that for a period of time that you weigh your forage and also any leftovers to establish what your horse's actual fibre intake is. This can often help to answer any problems related to loss of body condition or loose droppings etc!! 

  • Some disciplines require forage to be fed on almost a continuous basis e.g. endurance riding. Research shows that diets high in fibre resulted in increased water uptake. Furthermore, fibre in the hindgut traps water and electrolytes and helps to combat dehydration.

  • Apart from water and energy, salt is the only mineral that horses have an undisputable appetite for. In addition to a correct electrolyte supplementation programme, a salt lick should be provided and at least 2-3 ounces of salt added to the feed per day.

  • Travelling and competing can mean that horses go for prolonged periods without anything to eat. This leads to a build up in gastric acid and increases the incidence of gastric ulcers, which will reduce performance. Allow your horse to regularly graze or pick at a haynet to stimulate saliva production. Alfalfa is natural antacid, so frequent bites of chaff will help to neutralize excess stomach. Alternatively ask your nutritionist about the use of equine antacids such as Rite Trac.

  • There are now increasingly more performance diets available to meet the nutritional requirements for horses performing specific disciplines e.g. Enduro 100 for endurance horses or event horses or Re-Leve for horses that have excitable temperaments, digestive issues or muscle myopathies. For power based exercise such as racing, show jumping and advanced dressage, feeds will need to have more emphasis on providing energy from starch based ingredients, such as oats and barley e.g. Saracen Speed Mix. For stamina work such as endurance or cross-country, there will be a greater reliance on digestible fibre sources, such as Soya hulls and sugar beet and oil, balanced with enough cereal and starch to ensure that muscle glycogen stores remain 'topped' up.

  • Feeds are formulated to provide your horse with optimum nutrition when fed at the recommended quantity. Make sure that you weigh your feed to ensure correct intakes. If levels require adjustment to help manage body condition use a feedbalancer e.g. Competition Fit Balancer or Essential Balancer to provide adequate levels of vitamins and minerals and important antioxidants such as vitamin E and Selenium.
  • One of the most frequently asked questions concerns the timing of feeding the performance horse. Concentrate feeding alone should be avoided for at least three hours before heavy exercise to allow for increases in blood glucose and insulin to return to baseline levels. Feeding small amounts of forage or limited grazing time prior to exercise will moderate body weight and does not appear to have any other adverse effects to performance.
  • Electrolytes are a critical component of a performance horse’s nutritional programme since they play an important role in maintaining osmotic pressure, fluid balance, and nerve and muscle activity. During exercise, sodium, potassium and chloride are lost in large quantities through sweating. Loss of these electrolytes causes fatigue and muscle weakness and decreases the thirst response to dehydration. It is vitally important that performance horses begin competition with optimal levels of fluids and electrolytes in their bodies and that these are replaced throughout prolonged exercise. Electrolytes are often misused and it is essential that horses have access to unsupplemented drinking water when administering electrolytes. If the horse refuses to drink, do not administer an electrolyte paste or supplement. It is well worth a phone call to your vet or nutritionist to assess and advise on a correct electrolyte programme to ensure optimum performance and to reduce the problem of problems such as premature fatigue or Tying Up.
  • Finally, whatever level it is that you are competing at, remember, WATER, FORAGE, TRICKLE FEEDING, WEIGHTS, DO NOT HESITATE TO ASK FOR ADVICE FROM YOUR VET AND NUTRITIONIST.