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Feeding for optimum performance

The significant nutritional requirements of a hardworking horse mean that designing a balanced diet that provides these in the correct amounts is vital. From the all-important energy required to perform, to essential amino acids, trace minerals and key vitamins, simple changes to the diet can mean the difference between a winning and a mediocre performance.

Energy for performance and weight maintenance during increasing work is arguably one of the most important factors of the diet – and the energy sources selected can influence exercise type and recovery. Most working horse diets will require a blend of structural and non-structural carbohydrates for energy, as well as some amount of fat. However, the levels of each of these provided should depend on the work type being asked of the horse. While structural carbohydrates such as forages should be the largest part of all equine diets, horses performing fast-paced work (for example racing, polo, eventing and show jumping) will most likely require some amount of grain in their diet. The starch grain contains is released rapidly into the bloodstream as glucose and fuels anaerobic work and fast paced muscle contractions. Horses performing slower-paced work that is aerobic in nature (for example endurance and dressage) require higher levels of structural carbohydrates such as forage and slow release forms of energy such as fat and less energy from grains.

While protein is not as crucial to the mature performance horse as it is for breeding and growth, providing the correct level and ratio of amino acids is highly important for muscle development and maintenance. A performance horse receiving a diet that is deficient in protein or uses poor quality sources will over time begin to show signs of muscle wastage and lack of top-line.

Each trace mineral and vitamin plays a different role in the horse’s body and contributes to overall health and performance in various ways. Achieving optimum health by meeting all nutrient requirements improves overall vitality, therefore increasing the chance of improved performance, while also reducing time needed for recovery. Key nutrients for performance horses include chromium, antioxidants selenium and vitamin E, as well as electrolytes sodium, chloride and potassium.

Hardworking horses are often candidates for digestive problems such as gastric ulcers and hindgut acidosis, which can occur for various reasons (including management practices and stress) and can cause significant discomfort and therefore impact on performance. There are a number of essential management practices to avoid these conditions and ensure the equine athlete is able to perform to the best of their ability. This includes ensuring at least 1.5 percent of the horse’s body weight in high quality forage is consumed daily at a consistent rate, keeping grain meals to less than 2.5kg and only feeding digestible energy sources such as steam flaked grains and high quality fat sources.


For assistance with feeding plans to enhance overall health and performance, consult with an experienced equine nutrition advisor.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutrition Technical Advisor