With the Eventing season in full swing, the right nutrition can be just as important to success as the right training. Getting the diet right can make that all important difference, so follow these guidelines from Lisa Elliot MSc – nutritionist at Castle Horse Feeds – to achieve optimum health and performance in your eventer.
Just as for all horses, forage (grass, hay and/or haylage) should always be the main part and foundation of your event horse’s diet. Horses have evolved over many years to consume a continuous fibrous diet, so even the hardest working eventer should receive forage on an ad-lib basis. At certain times of the year, grass alone can provide plenty of energy for work and more digestible forages like haylage can also be beneficial for performance horses.
Ideally the diet should contain at least 70% forage and no less than 1.5% of body weight. This is the case even when there is a need to replace part of the diet with higher energy feeds, which will help maximise digestive health. You should feed the best quality forage you can find to enable your horse to get the maximum nutrition out of their forage.
Extra energy can be provided by feeding sources of highly digestible fibre such as grass nuts or unmolassed sugar beet, which will be a good source of slow release energy for improved stamina. Additionally, sources of highly digestible fibre will help keep the gut microbes happy and healthy.
Fats and oils
Oil contains 2.5 times more energy than cereals and the energy it contains is released slowly. For example, Linseed meal is high in oil and is an ideal choice to provide extra stamina when needed for the more sustained phases of eventing. Oils and fat are also beneficial as a good energy source for excitable horses, who need to keep calm and focused on their work for the best performance.
Cereals such as oats, wheat, barley and maize are often portrayed negatively due to the levels of starch they contain. Horses have a limited ability to digest starch, so if too much is fed, it can result in digestive problems. Additionally, cereals are broken down quickly to simple sugars such as glucose and if larger amounts are fed, the resulting sugar peak can result in excitable behaviour. However, small amounts of fast release energy from cereal starch can be beneficial to give your horse the energy needed to gallop and jump for a great cross-country round, the key is not to overfeed them and to keep meals small. The glucose from cereals also provides a source of energy for the brain, which is important when you need your horse to concentrate.
Fibre, oil and cereals will all provide your horse with sources of energy to meet the differing demands of Eventing, but energy itself can often be misunderstood. Energy is often referred to as calories because energy and calories are basically the same, calories are just a measurement of energy. Basically if a horse isn’t receiving enough calories or energy in the diet to sustain the level of work asked they will lose weight. Similarly, if too much energy is fed they will gain weight. It’s commonly assumed that if the horse doesn’t have enough energy for the work they are doing you need to feed more, but this is not always the case. If the horse is in good condition it’s unlikely that a lack of energy is the cause, it’s more likely to be linked to fitness as opposed to a lack of energy from feed. Therefore, it’s always important to assess fitness before adding more feed and make sure the horse is fit enough for the level of work that he or she is being asked to do. A horse that has the optimum amount of fitness for their work should not be lacking in energy simply because the amount of energy generated from feed increases with fitness to fully understand the facts and dispel the myths of energy and calorie consumption in horses, read this useful post – Fit, frantic or fat.
Protein is important for normal muscle growth and integrity in line with regular work. Horses need around 8-12% protein in the diet depending on lifestyle, work and age. Look for feeds containing good quality sources of protein from ingredients such as soya and linseed meal. Around 10-11% protein is ideal even for harder working horses at the higher levels of the sport and will help keep them performing well. Protein is often thought to be an energy source and make horses fizzy but this is a common myth which has arisen because feeds higher in protein are also higher in energy. Any excess protein will get broken down and excreted out of the body via the kidneys without causing excitable behaviour. Click here to find out more about protein and how much your horse needs.
Micronutrients are vital for all stages of Eventing so it’s essential to make sure your horse is getting a good supply of the right vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin E for antioxidant support, which is important for harder working horses. A good quality, premium balancer or fully balanced suitable compound feed – fed at the recommended feeding rate – will provide these essential micronutrients for optimum health and performance. It is important to feed at the recommended feeding rate to ensure your horse gets correct levels of all the key nutrients, so they don’t miss out on anything they need. If feeding the full rate of a compound feed isn’t ideal, for example for more excitable or overweight horses, then a good quality balancer is a great alternative as this will ensure your horse gets all the essentials without any extra unwanted energy.
Water and Electrolytes
Water is vital for working horses to achieve optimal fluid balance and avoid dehydration and regular intake is essential. Salt is the most important electrolyte you can give your horse and will encourage regular drinking. Feeding around 60 – 90g salt per day (NRC, 2007) depending on the level of work the horse is doing is best to help replace sodium and chloride lost in sweat. Potassium is also necessary but a horse receiving adequate levels of forage in their diet should normally be getting enough. Electrolyte supplements can also be fed for additional support for harder working horses. A good supplement should contain the three key electrolytes sodium, chloride and potassium as the main ingredients and at the correct levels to mirror what is lost in sweat. Many electrolyte supplements contain glucose as a key ingredient, but the key is to replace salts not sugar, so it’s wise to avoid supplements with glucose listed as one of the main ingredients. Electrolytes can be fed a few hours before an event, but most importantly should be fed after an event to replace what has been lost in sweat and enhance recovery.
Yeast based prebiotics have been shown to enhance fibre digestion, allowing the horse to get the most out of their forage. This is beneficial for any working horse to enhance the nutrition they are getting. These prebiotics can also promote the growth of beneficial bacteria so are useful in situations where bacterial equilibrium could be disturbed such as travelling to a competition. Choosing feeds containing these prebiotics will help keep the all-important beneficial microbes in your horses gut happy for optimum gut health and a healthy, comfortable hindgut is important for focus and performance.
- Forage should always be fed on an ad-lib basis no matter what the level of work
- Feeds containing a blend of fibres, oils and some cereals, such as a muesli can be ideal to reflect the differing demands of Eventing
- Always feed your horse for work done rather than what they will do in the future, to ensure good preparation and performance
- Condition scoring and weigh taping regularly can help you to assess any changes and make adjustments to the diet so your horse looks and performs their best
- Always make sure you are only providing feed from members of the BETA NOPS Scheme to minimise the risk of prohibited substances.
Article by Lisa Elliott (MSc), nutritionist at Castle Horse Feeds. If you have any questions about creating the best diet for your horse, please contact Castle Horse Feeds – a tried and trusted brand that combines quality with value for money. All Castle Horse Feeds are produced from the highest quality ingredients, straight from their UFAS Accredited Mill.