How to feed a competition horse?
Feeding performance horses can be a tough challenge. Fortunately, there are specialists who love to search for scientific information and constantly test it in practice. Lizzie Drury, Saracen Horse Feeds nutritionist, is one of them. Every day she helps top riders such as Harrie Smolders and Charlotte Dujardin compose the perfect ration. In this article she will give you a wealth of tips to optimally feed your competition horse.
Requirements vary per horse, everything depends on factors such as body weight, condition score, discipline (e.g. endurance, jumping, eventing, dressage, ...), environment, riding skills, etc. However, all sport horses train and compete under a variety of stressful conditions. They all have that in common. These stressful situations can adversely affect health and performance. That is why it is important to implement a number of nutrition and management strategies. These are crucial, regardless of the level at which the horse takes part in competitions.
Picture: Philippe Oursel
The fundament of a good diet
- 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 1.5% 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 2% of BW and more if you are feeding haylage.
- 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.
- 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.
- Timing of the feeding is also something to take into account. To help reduce the risk of gastric ulcers and to help horses sleep, rest and recover, think about offering any forage that you feed on a 80:20 daytime - night time bias. Concentrate feeding alone should be avoided for at least four to five 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. Also, avoid feeding concentrate feed directly before or after a (long) journey.
Salt and other supplements
- 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 but be prepared to increase this as temperatures and workloads increase.
- 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.
- 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 high in calcium, so frequent bites of chaff will help to neutralize excess stomach. Feeding a meal of alfalfa chaff half an hour before exercise will help to increase the buffering capacity of the stomach and form that protective matt to help prevent against splash ulcers. Calcium will also help to replace lost Calcium in the sweat, while the quality protein will help support cell renewal, tissue and muscle repair.
- When travelling, offer frequent watering stops to help keep your horse hydrated. If your horse is fussy about drinking when travelling, try using flavoured water or soaked sugar beet water is rarely refused! Of course, these methods should be tried and tested at home first. A horse that is properly hydrated will perform better and delay the onset of fatigue and reduce the risk of problems such as Tying Up. Good quality forage also helps to increase water intake. Horses will drink within an hour after given hay.
If you are going on a long journey and will be away for several days you may want to consider providing additional nutritional support for the immune system. Natural vitamin E supplements, such as Nano E™ can be given 3 days prior to travelling, during competition and for 3 days post travelling. Vitamin E contributes richly to the wellbeing of the horse, and plays a vital role in immune, cardiovascular and circulatory functions. In addition, vitamin E is an essential component of body wide antioxidant defences. The most common source of vitamin E used in feeds and supplements is synthetic dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate. Synthetic vitamin E is not as biologically potent as natural vitamin E and research has shown that the body preferentially transports and incorporates natural vitamin E into the tissues, helping to support immune function and reduce the extent of muscle soreness.
- Oil is also something that gets frequently added to horses’ diets. It helps giving that extra little bit of gleam to the coat, to increase the calorie density of a diet without the need to feed larger amounts of concentrate feed, to provide essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid and to help increase stamina. Soya oil and vegetable oil are popular supplements and can be added to a diet at levels of up to 450ml. It is not recommended to over feed liquid oil as undigested oil may reach the hindgut and interfere with fibre digestion not to mention the possible palatability problems of an ‘oily’ meal! It is also important to remember that adding extra oil to the diet also increases the need for extra antioxidant protection in the form of Vitamin E and it would be wise to check with a nutritionist that you have this covered. As a general rule of thumb; for every additional 100ml of oil added to the diet, you require an additional 100 iu of vitamin E.
- Research has also shown that feeding chaff before exercise helps to maintain blood flow to the digestive system, which can help to minimise blood reperfusion to the stomach after exercise, which can be detrimental and increase inflammation.
Special performance diets
- There are now increasingly more performance diets available to meet the nutritional requirements for horses performing specific disciplines e.g. Enduro performance 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 Competition Fit 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.
Horses that have excitable temperaments usually benefit from a concentrate feed that is based on digestible fibres such as Soya hulls, alfalfa and sugar beet (Saracen Re-Leve or Show Improver Pencils). The way in which these are digested in the horse’s gut means that the energy is provided slowly, which helps to manage some of the more fizzy horses. To ensure that your horse is receiving all of the vitamins and minerals that he requires for optimum health make sure that you are feeding the manufacturers recommended amounts.
For horses that are more laid back and straightforward, traditional conditioning or performance feeds such as Saracen Show Improver Mix or Enduro 100 will encourage slightly more ‘lift and elevation’ without silly behaviour. Feeds such as these use a variety of cereals e.g. barley and maize, which are micronised to increase digestibility and utilization and will provide the energy for work. Providing that cereal-based feeds are fed in sensible quantities and not in one or two large meals, horses are can digest them efficiently with no ill effects on digestive health or temperament. As a general rule of thumb, concentrate meal size should not exceed 2.0 Kg for a horse and 1.0 Kg for a pony.
- If you have a horse that gets fat just looking at a bag of feed or is prone to laminitis, then the recommended feeding amounts for these types of feeds may provide too many calories, which in turn will lead to excess weight. In these situations, opt for low calorie performance feed balancers, such as Stamm 30, which provide all the essential trace elements and quality protein but without the calories!
Water, forage, trickle feeding, weights
Finally, whatever level it is that you are competing at, please remember the following important parts: water, forage, trickle feeding, weights.
Do not hesitate to ask for advice from your vet and nutritionist about the specific needs your horse may have.
Do you have any questions? Or are you looking for specific nutritional advice for your horse? Please contact nutrition expert Lizzie Drury of Saracen Horse Feeds. This can be done by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org , distributor for Saracen in Belgium.