by Casie Bazay

How to Meet Your Performance Horse’s Nutrition Requirements

How to Meet Your Performance Horse’s Nutrition Requirements


Are you feeding for top Performance?

This is a question that every performance horse owner has considered at some point. After all, nutrition can make a key difference in how a horse looks, feels, and performs. So how should a performance horse in western disciplines such as barrel racing, breakaway roping, team roping, or calf roping be fed exactly? We talked to Senior Equine Nutritionist at Montana State University's and FullBucket’s senior equine nutritionist, Dr. Amanda Bradbery, for an in-depth answer.

To begin with Dr. Bradbery reminds us that “horses performing in western disciplines are no different from horses performing in almost any discipline, but the first thing you’ll need to consider is the amount of work they’re doing. This will enable you to identify your horse’s energy needs and establish a baseline set of nutritional requirements.”

So let’s dive in, shall we? 

How to estimate your horse’s workload

The National Research Council’s 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses identifies four distinct work levels. These categories can be used to estimate the horse’s energy needs. The four NRC workload categories are as follows:

  1. Light: 1-3 hours per week; 40% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter;
  2. Moderate: 3-5 hours per week; 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter, 5% low jumping, cutting or other skill work;
  3. Heavy: 4-5 hours per week; 20% walk, 50% trot, 15% canter, 15 % gallop, jumping, other skill work;
  4. Very Heavy: Varies; ranges from 1 hour per week speed work to 6-12 hours per week slow work.

The average 1,000 lb. adult horse at maintenance will require about 17 Mcal per day, but horses in work will require 20%, 40%, 60%, and 90% more than maintenance levels, respectively. 

Most western performance horses will fall into the moderate to heavy workload range. Therefore, the same sized horse in work would need anywhere from 23.8-27.2 Mcal/day. 

Keep in mind, however, that there is quite a bit of individual variation in horses, and some may need less or more digestible energy (DE) per day to maintain good body condition. 

Always, always, always start with forage

The basis of any performance horse’s feeding program should consist of good quality forage—either pasture, hay, or both. It is possible that all protein and energy requirements for horses in light or moderate work can be met by good pasture or hay alone. However, since this is not how most performance horses are managed, it is usually necessary to feed concentrates to supply additional energy needs. 

It should also be noted that horses in heavy work cannot eat enough forage to meet their energy needs. Therefore, a good starting place for these horses is providing at least 50% of the diet (or around 1.5% of the horse’s body weight per day) as good-quality forage and the remaining percent as grain or concentrated feed. 

Performance horse owners should keep in mind that feeding more forage and less grain results in fewer gut problems, lowers the likelihood of developing stable vices, and adheres to a horse’s natural feeding patterns.  

Energy needs are mostly met by carbohydrates and fat

Energy can be supplied as carbohydrates, fat, and protein, but carbohydrates and fat are superior to protein when it comes to fueling the body. 

Carbohydrates are categorized by how they are digested. Grains have higher energy density than forage does, but they also contain high levels of starch that are digested by enzymes in the stomach and small intestine. 

Forages and high-fiber products such as beet pulp are digested mostly by microbes in the hindgut through fermentation. 

Dr. Bradbery notes, “As a rule, horses should never be fed more than 5 lbs of grain at one meal, and smaller, more frequent meals are better for the digestive system.” 

When horses are fed large amounts of grain, some soluble carbohydrates will spill over into the large intestine, which decreases the hindgut pH level and often leads to ulcers and other digestive issues. However, the starch in different types of grains is digested differently. 

For example, oats are mostly digested in the foregut with less than 10% passing over into the hindgut. Whole corn, on the other hand, is not efficiently digested, with up to 70% of corn starch passing into the hindgut. That makes corn one of the less desirable grains to feed. 

However, when grains are processed (steamed, crimped, flaked, etc.) the amount of starch reaching the hindgut is reduced. Many commercial feeds further reduce the amount of starch by mixing processed grains with highly digestible fiber sources such as beet pulp, soybean hulls, dehydrated alfalfa, and almond hulls. 

Fat is also an important and sometimes overlooked energy source for horses. With 2.25 times more energy than grains, it can replace starch in feeds. Fat is also considered a “cool energy” source that has a low heat increment and spares glycogen—the energy source that fuels approximately 80% of a horse’s exercise. 

How much protein does a horse need?

Hard-working horses require slightly increased protein. However, protein levels do not need to be above maintenance requirements (8-12%), but must be increased in performance horse feeds to maintain the required nutrient:calorie ratio. 

As stated above, protein is not an efficient energy source; this is because it requires energy, releases more heat, and generates ammonia which must be excreted as urea in urine. Horses fed excess protein often sweat more and have higher urinary water losses which can lead to dehydration and increased risk of tying up

Performance horses consuming legume hay (alfalfa, clover, etc.) or a commercially formulated performance horse diet will not need any type of additional protein supplement. 

Crucial vitamins and minerals for horses

Commercial feeds are designed to meet most all of a horse’s mineral and vitamin needs, but in order to do so, they must be fed at the recommended feeding rate. For horses who aren’t fed the recommended rate or who are fed grains instead, a vitamin and trace mineral supplement may be needed. 

Calcium and phosphorus are critical for the constant bone-remodeling process that occurs in performance horses, and the ideal ratio is 2:1 calcium to phosphorus. Likewise, horses fed large amounts of oats and poor quality forage can have an inverted Ca:P ratio which can also lead to serious health and skeletal problems. 

Many horses that are not fed commercial feeds at recommended feeding rates can also benefit from supplemental magnesium (total need is 10-15 grams per day). 

As far as trace minerals for horses, there is an increased requirement for zinc in exercising horses and because copper, zinc, and manganese compete for absorption, all three minerals should be increased in the diet. 

Selenium should also be considered if it is not already included in the diet if in a region with low soil selenium. If in a region with high selenium, additional supplementation could result in toxicity.  Most commercial feeds contain around 0.3 mg/kg of selenium. 

Electrolytes lost in sweat must also be replaced. Horse sweat is hypertonic, meaning they lose more electrolytes per liter of sweat than humans. If horses are sweating excessively, an additional 1-2 ounces of an electrolyte supplement is needed. 

Electrolytes include sodium (Na), chloride (Cl), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg).  Chloride, sodium, and potassium are lost at the greatest rate in sweat and will need to be replaced using a supplement formulated with a 4:2:1 ratio, respectively. 

Horses not on pasture, on high-grain diets, and/or under the stress of training and showing may have decreased B vitamin levels, especially thiamin and riboflavin. Again, most commercial feeds include these vitamins, but if the horse isn’t being fed the recommended amount, they may benefit from additional B vitamin supplementation. Other vitamins to ensure in the diet are A, D, E, and K. 

Fullbucket’s Athletic Formula is a proven option for providing vitamin E as well as other ingredients that help to support muscle recovery in hard-working horses. Athletic Formula helps support peak performance with the inclusion of prebiotics, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and essential vitamins and minerals, all designed with the latest equine nutrition research in mind.

Adjust your horse’s diet as needed on an individual basis

“With different training regimens and showing schedules, owners will likely need to adjust their horse’s diet throughout the year,” says Dr. Bradbery. 

“Continually monitoring the horse’s body condition is usually a good way to do this. Use the Henneke Body Condition Scoring system (1-9)  and keep in mind that performance horses are often at their best when maintained at a score of 5-6.” 

Remember, while these guidelines are the perfect place to start, your horse is an individual and should be fed as such. Work with a qualified equine nutritionist and veterinarian to ensure your Western performance horse’s success. 

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