We all admire the equine athlete, the captivating blend of speed, control, grace and endurance. But the added stress of performance requires an optimal diet, with plenty of energy from carbohydrates and fats, high quality protein, adequate minerals, and vitamins.
Carbohydrates supply the foundation for energy needs and fuel quick power bursts. The most significant source of carbohydrates should be forage, fed free-choice to provide an amount equal to 2.5 to 3.5% of his body weight. This is central to your horses’ health. When forage is consistently available (beyond what you believe they’ll initially eat), horses will ultimately self-regulate their intake and eat only what their bodies need. Since the horse’s stomach continually produces acid, an empty stomach will lead to discomfort, ulcers, and irregular hormonal changes.
Besides forage, feed concentrated meals, usually a commercial “performance” mix or better yet, clean oats with added supplementation. But don’t overdo it. The stomach has a relatively small capacity; a too-generous meal can lead to colic. Too much starch at one time also increases stomach acid, potentially leading to ulcers or exacerbating an existing ulceration. Large, starchy meals may trigger laminitis, and in young horses, high-starch diets can lead to osteopathic disorders. And there are other things to be aware of: If starch is fed in excess without enough forage, the calcium-phosphorus imbalance can lead to tying up, irregular heartbeat, inability to regulate body temperature, impaired joint and bone development, or porous bones than can easily fracture. Limit the cereal grain content of your horse’s diet to 2 lbs at a time (less for growing horses) and combine it with other feedstuffs (i.e. hay pellets, beet pulp, and fatty feeds) to create a meal of no more than 4 lbs (dry weight). Remember proportion: Rely on forage for the majority of the horse’s feed.
Fat promotes endurance as another energy source, thereby sparing carbohydrates from being used up too quickly. Fat also prevents lactic acid buildup (lactic acid slows muscle recovery). And fat steadies the blood sugar and insulin response, which smooths temperament.
But not all fats are the same:
When switching to fat as an energy source, it’s best to “train” your horse’s body to choose fat for energy. To do this, increase the exercise intensity, giving your horse at least a month of hard training with extra fat in his diet.
Protein builds healthy muscle, bone, tendons, and blood, as well as hundreds of other body proteins involved in keeping systems in top working order. A grass-alfalfa hay mixture (no more than 50% alfalfa) will offer a high quality forage-based protein. Commercial feeds should supply between 14 and 16 percent crude protein; most producers boost overall protein quality by adding individual amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and tyrosine, as well as alfalfa and soybean meal. Soy can be problematic, however, so consider other sources of protein such as copra meal, isolated whey protein, pea protein, and hempseeds.
Grazing on healthy pasture is the best source of vitamins and minerals, but for many horses, hay is the likely forage source. Once fresh grass is cut, dried, and stored as hay, its nutritive value diminishes. For the performance horse, pay close attention to the following:
Most prepared mineral supplements contain adequate minerals. Test your hay to determine its mineral content and balance them accordingly with the rest of the diet.
Optimal performance requires optimal nutrition. Provide a high-quality, healthful diet of forage, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and minerals to help your equine athlete meet his toughest performance challenges.
For permission to reprint this article, in part or in its entirety, please contact Dr. Juliet Getty directly at Gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.